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A Formidable Bloc to Chip

GOP Touts Gains Among Hispanic Voters While Some Democrats Fret

Pollsters and partisans disagree over exactly what percentage of the Latino population voted for President Bush in November.

But most agree that Republicans made gains with the growing minority group, emboldening Republicans to push harder and leaving Democrats wondering how they lost their hold on this previously reliable voting bloc.

The GOP did so well — Bush and Congressional Republicans increased their percentage of Hispanic voters somewhere from 5 percent to 9 percent from 2000, depending on the poll — that there is serious talk among Republicans about trying to pull even with Democrats in the next two cycles.

Most pollsters say Republicans captured 40 percent to 44 percent of the Latino vote in November.

“Republicans see it within their grasp to achieve parity,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster and strategist.

The GOP’s progress has led Latino Democrats in Congress to issue a stern warning, suggesting that Democratic strongholds like California, New York and New Jersey could become competitive if Latino voters permanently change allegiances.

“It is time for the leadership of the Democratic Party to face the facts,” leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote their colleagues in a December letter. “There is no denying that Republicans increasingly have done better among the Hispanic electorate over the last decade. Republicans have been committed, methodical and are clearly winning the battle for the Hispanic voters.”

While many Republicans attribute their gains to Bush — particularly his Texas roots and his willingness to appoint Hispanics to top-level positions — no one believes they will subside when he no longer tops the Republican ticket.

“The basis of our success in the last election was really getting out our message effectively — the president and our candidates did a good job of explaining why the Republican Party is a natural fit for Hispanics,” said Alex Burgos, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s spokesman for Spanish-language media.

Additionally, the party ran several high-profile Hispanic candidates who made history while also fielding Latinos for lower offices, such as county commissions and city councils, in hopes of developing a farm team, Burgos said.

Newly elected Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), formerly the Housing and Urban Development Secretary, will become the first Cuban-American Senator when the 109th Congress convenes today, and Luis Fortuño will be Puerto Rico’s first Resident Commissioner in the House to caucus with the Republicans. (Ken Salazar of Colorado will become the Democrats’ first Hispanic Senator in 28 years today.)

While Republicans say they often tailored messages specifically for different segments of the Hispanic population, they also attribute their success to efforts to approach Latinos in the same way they approach voters at large.

“There is no doubt Hispanics share many of the values of the Republican Party,” said Leslie Sanchez, president of the Impacto Group, a Republican communications research firm. “Hispanics understood the issue of keeping America safe. Security was a strong motivator; they voted like many other non-Hispanic voters.”

Hispanic and female voters helped put Bush over the top in November, Sanchez said.

Greg Crist, spokesman for the House Republican Conference, said the GOP has been ratcheting up its Hispanic outreach for a while now.

For instance, Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), who is married to a Latina, encourages Members to take a weekly Spanish class on the Hill. Additionally, each Member has designated a minority outreach coordinator and the Conference offers seminars for those coordinators. Furthermore, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) has established the Congressional Hispanic Conference to rival the Democratic-heavy Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Impacto Group regularly briefs the Conference on its Hispanic focus group results.

Democrats grudgingly acknowledge Republicans have made inroads, though some take a cynical view of how.

“They did the best rope-a-dope since Ali-Foreman,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said of the Republican message, comparing it to the legendary 1974 heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Bacerra accused Republicans of focusing on “wedge issues” instead of things that matter to working families.

“They deflected attention from the real issues affecting Latino families,” he said. “Now they’re going to have to deliver to the community and that will be difficult. [Banning] gay marriage is not going to get someone a job.”

Crist acknowledged that some issues, such as immigration reform, could be dicey for the party, but he thinks Republicans can reach consensus among themselves and offer legislation that appeases conservatives while not alienating Hispanics.

There is support in the Hispanic community to help those who work within the system while also establishing a process that makes it easier for new immigrants to enter and take jobs that no one else wants, Crist said.

As long as Republicans make clear that tougher border security is about national security and preventing terrorists from entering the country, rather than something based on old stereotypes, Latinos will respond positively, he said.

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that one way to attract more Hispanic voters is to craft messages specifically for different segments of the population.

For example, Puerto Ricans are a growing population in central Florida, and many are particularly interested in seeing the Commonwealth achieve statehood, said Kenneth McClintock, leader of the Puerto Rican Senate and a member of the Democratic National Committee. Had Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) been more aware of these views during the presidential election, he could have won many more Hispanic votes in Florida, McClintock said.

Other segments of the Hispanic universe, such as the Dominicans, focus more on immigration issues, he said, while Cuban-Americans pay more attention to U.S. foreign policy, particularly in regard to dealing with communist Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro.

Burgos said that Republican candidates would be wise to play up foreign policy to Florida’s many Cubans but focus on education, health care and small business tax relief in Mexican-American-heavy states such as New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

Latino Democrats say their party lost ground primarily because it did a poor job of communicating its message to Hispanic voters.

“Bush realized there was diversity within diversity,” McClintock acknowledged. “Kerry’s advisers tried but his ‘big handlers’ didn’t ‘get’ the Hispanic community.”

Becerra agreed: “Democrats have to heed the wake-up call. [Hispanics] were captivated by a very defined message that the Republicans sent that was cluttered by all the noise of Iraq. Democrats didn’t do a good job of cutting through the clutter.”

While many Democrats agree they lost the message war, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus letter goes further, saying the party has been ignoring Hispanic voters in the past five cycles.

“If Democrats do not undertake a major paradigm shift in how they deal with Latino voter[s], the future of the party is in serious jeopardy,” the letter states.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus issued a warning that was likely music to Republican ears: that California, New Jersey and New York could be in play if Democrats continue to treat Hispanics as part of their base instead of as a swing constituency.

Winston, after examining exit polls, has come to the same conclusion.

The Latino community “goes from being solidly Democratic to being a competitive group,” said Winston, a Roll Call contributing writer.

The Pew Hispanic Center issued a report on Hispanics and race last month that could offer some insight to the political parties.

One tantalizing bit: Hispanics who define themselves as white are more likely to align with the Republican Party than Latinos who say they belong to “some other race.”

One Latina Democratic Hill staffer, who did not want to be named, said she was not sure why that was but said it could reflect a socio-economic reality that as people make more money, they tend to be more Republican.

“The race question is very complicated,” she said, noting that in many Latin American countries social classes are often still based on race.

While buoyed by their gains, Republicans say they are not taking their accomplishments for granted.

“Now definitely isn’t a time to rest on our laurels,” Burgos said. “It is time to recruit candidates, to attract and develop new talent to the party.”

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