Bush recently led a Hispanic Leadership Network board meeting in Florida, part of the GOP’s larger effort to connect with minorities.
The reasoning is straightforward: The influence of white voters as a percentage of the electorate continues to trend downward. It reached an all-time low of 72 percent last year, when Hispanics accounted for 10 percent of the electorate for the first time. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won white voters by an astounding 20 points but lost the election by 126 electoral votes.
Romney won just 27 percent of Hispanic voters, the lowest percentage for a Republican in a two-way presidential race since 1976. Ross Perot’s presence on the ballot in 1992 and 1996 as a third-party candidate pushed the GOP’s take among Hispanics to a quarter of the vote or less.
“This is incremental,” Bolger said. “We don’t go from 30 [percent] to 50 percent overnight. It’s a long, slow slog, but it’s something that has to happen.”
The party has a few Hispanic statewide elected officials that it hopes can continue to serve as an entrée to the community: Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada — the latter two from swing states that have tilted toward Democrats in the past two elections.
The problem, GOP sources said, is that the loudest Republican voices on immigration tend to emanate from the party’s hard-liners. That can be an issue in presidential primaries, as candidates often try to outflank each other on the right.
“There’s a widespread consensus that we have got to change the tone by which we talk about undocumented immigrants, immigrants in general and Hispanics in particular,” Ayres said. “I don’t know that there’s any consensus yet on the policy changes that need to occur, but that is part of the conversation.”
Rubio, for one, appears to be headed down that road with an immigration overhaul plan, the heart of which was unveiled in recent media interviews. Rubio, whose candidacy for president alone could give Republicans an inroad among Hispanics, has been meeting in recent months with members of both parties in the House and Senate, as well as outside groups active on immigration.
“I’ve disagreed with some ideas offered in past debates and the way the issue’s been handled,” Rubio said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “So it’s our responsibility to offer solutions that modernize our legal immigration system, strengthen security and enforcement measures, and deal with the undocumented population in a humane way that doesn’t give them a special advantage over immigrants trying to come legally.”
There is pressure on both parties to do something on immigration in the current Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called it his top priority in an interview with Las Vegas’ Public Broadcasting Service station. But moving immigration legislation has proved a tall task, as evidenced most recently by the 2007 congressional battle that came up empty.
Republicans argue that Democrats have done a good job co-opting the messaging on immigration, making Republicans seem unwilling to do anything on the issue.