In a middle school classroom in north Los Angeles, a group of mostly-Latino eighth graders were asked to explain what they knew about the candidates running for president. Their answers should make every Republican worry about the future. The three terms that came up over and over again, in conjunction with one another, were “Donald Trump,” “racist” and “Republican Party.”
The teachers involved in this exercise added of their students, “They are ready to get involved. They want to protect their families.”Youth is temporary, of course, but the memories formed during this impressionable period last much longer. For some people, Ronald Reagan’s speech to schoolchildren after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle marks their first political memory. For others, it might be the early days of the well-televised 1991 Gulf War, or George W. Bush speaking from the rubble of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
That first impression isn’t always a positive one, of course. Many Latinos in California came of age watching Gov. Pete Wilson’s Proposition 187, which sought to deny all non-emergency state services to illegal immigrants. Prop 187 is believed to have alienated a generation of Latino youth from the GOP. It ignited a wave of political activism and participation that yielded a new generation of Democratic leaders and activists. In fact, a group of Latino Democratic elected officials in California celebrated the 20th anniversary of Prop 187 with a social media post thanking Wilson for inspiring their political careers. Likewise, we are already starting to witness the impact of the Trump candidacy and its scapegoating of immigrants as the cause of America’s problems, beginning with his statements about Mexicans “doing the raping.” Perceiving a potential threat to their way of life, Latinos are naturally rushing to become citizens and vote against Trump.
The first political memory of many of these future voters and leaders will be the need to mobilize against the perfidy of Republicans. Long before Trump or Wilson, Reagan had brought a very different outlook to Hispanics who came of age in his era. Reagan, whose conservative credentials are beyond question, did not ignore illegal immigration. He acknowledged that it was a serious issue. But unlike certain of my fellow Republicans today, he was not obsessed with undocumented immigrants as America’s main problem, and was not shy in defending his amnesty proposal.
Reagan seeded a generation of Latino Republican leaders, and we see the modest first fruits of that today. Yes, Democrats still win the Latino vote by wide margins and have far more elected Latino officials. But Latino Republicans have been closing the gap.
According to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, Republicans accounted for just 1 in 12 partisan-elected Latinos at all levels in 2004. Compare that to 2014 — before the election — when they accounted for nearly 1 in 7. Hispanic Republicans have fared especially well in higher offices compared to their Democratic counterparts. Eight of the 12 Latinos holding statewide office today are Republicans — a dramatic shift from 2004, when 8 of 10 were Democrats.
These modest gains represent an important first step toward improving Republicans’ future with Latino voters, who are not nearly as unpersuadable as many on the Left and Right would have it. But those gains could easily be squandered if Trump is given the opportunity to create the next generation of Latino politicians and voters.
Sanchez is former director of the White House Initiative on Hispanic Education under George W. Bush and author of “Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other.” Follow her on Twitter @lesliesanchez.
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