CPAC Highlights GOP’s Struggle With Diversity

Posted February 28, 2009 at 7:28am

On Thursday afternoon, about 80 attendees of the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference sat in on a panel called “Building the Conservative Hispanic Coalition” — and what was scheduled to be an hourlong panel stretched into nearly three hours.

But despite the enthusiasm of Congressional Republicans about broadening the diversity of the GOP, for the most part the headliners in the main ballroom at the three-day conference were white men of all ages.

Panel member Danny Vargas, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said that from a marketing perspective the GOP has a ways to go and that having a prominent Hispanic Republican as a CPAC speaker would help in that regard.

“There is a lot to be said for image,” he said. “That’s the way that you will dictate how people vote.”

Vargas said that when it comes to basic values, Hispanics tend to lean conservative, but the immigration reform issue has tarnished the GOP’s image for a large swath of voters in that community.

“There is a movement in the party that says, ‘We don’t do identity politics. We are Republicans,’” Vargas said. “You don’t have to pander — all we have to do is get back to basics.”

Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund and a panel participant, said the Republican Party is slowly moving toward where it eventually needs to be with Hispanic voters.

“It’s been in its infancy for a very long time — it’s probably the longest infancy ever,” Lopez said. “The good news is that clearly it’s starting to sink in.”

Lopez added that his group was pleasantly surprised by how accepted they felt at this year’s CPAC meeting, once a hotbed for anti-immigration rhetoric.

“Only a few people weren’t happy we were here,” he said.

One of those unhappy attendees was Michael McLaughlin, a member of the American Council for Immigration Reform and first-time exhibitor at the conference.

“We are playing into the Democrats’ [methods] with this kind of tokenism,” McLaughlin said.

“Stop listening to people that lost us the Congressional majority and the president for God’s sake,” Lopez said. “We tried it their way, and we got killed and all their candidates pretty much got killed.”

The need for the Republican Party to reach out to and reconnect with Hispanics in order for the party to remain politically viable is not lost on Congressional leaders. In fact, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) both brought the issue up as a critical demographic where conservatives needed to make gains.

“We must broaden our party and increase our appeal among groups that share our values, but don’t necessarily identify as conservatives or vote consistently as Republicans,” Cornyn said. “As we’ve built these relationships, we’ve discovered that Hispanics are among the most conservative voters in the nation on many issues.”

McConnell echoed that sentiment: “We’ve made the case to Hispanic and African-American voters that our policies are best suited to the aspirations of these communities. … Yet in the last election, Hispanic voters turned out in far greater numbers for the Democrat candidates, and sadly, the party that was founded on the principle of racial equality attracted just 4 percent of the African-American vote in the last presidential election.”

“These are not reasons to abandon the effort,” he added. “They are reasons to work twice as hard.”

However, the message seems to be reaching party leaders only in pieces. While the chairmen of the GOP’s House and Senate campaign committees have worked hard to recruit Hispanic candidates — the GOP did not have a separate Spanish-language response from a prominent Hispanic leader in addition to the address given by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) last week following President Barack Obama’s address to Congress. The Democratic National Committee pioneered the effort to do a presidential response in Spanish beginning in 2003.

An aide with knowledge of the planning pointed out that the response did reach a Spanish-language audience.

“The address was simulcast in Spanish on CNN Española, Univision and Telemundo,” the GOP aide said. “The audio and translation also went to Spanish-language media outlets.”

Vargas said that most Hispanics likely watched the address on an English-language station, but again said — from a marketing perspective — an additional response would not have hurt.

“We would definitely like to see more” Hispanic presence, Lopez said. He added that he hoped his group could get involved in planning CPAC earlier and take more of a role in the process.