GOP at crossroads with Hispanics

Republicans are enjoying a well-deserved victory lap. But, when it comes to the touchy subjects of Hispanic outreach and immigration reform, they still seem a tad confused about the road ahead.

Ground zero for this confusion is the Southwest, the region of the country where most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans live. These groups represent about two-thirds of the 54 million Hispanics in the United States, and more than half of the estimated 10 million to 12 million Hispanic voters who are likely to cast ballots in 2016. This subset carries additional weight because - unlike Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who are dependable Democratic voters, and Cuban-Americans and many from Central America who tend to vote Republican - Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are up for grabs. While they still vote nearly 2-1 for Democrats, a trend that continued in the recent midterm elections, they're basically conservative voters who have shown a willingness to cross party lines to support moderate Republicans who make the effort to reach out to them.

And, in those contests, when Mexicans and Mexican-Americans vote for Republicans in the range of 35 percent to 40 percent, Democrats often lose. Unfortunately for the GOP, this doesn't happen often enough - in large part because of the party's clumsy handling of the immigration issue, which often comes across as anti-Hispanic. Some Republicans recognize this, and they want to make changes. Others stubbornly insist that the party isn't doing anything wrong and resist reaching out to voters who don't typically favor Republicans.

Which brings us to the confusion. The election results didn't do anything to settle the ongoing debate between two factions of the GOP - the one that thinks the party can only survive by bringing in different types of voters, and the other that believes the party will never survive if it waters down its message and abandons its core constituents.

The day before the election, I was speaking to one of the nation's most influential conservative thinkers who happens to live in Colorado. She seemed to be complaining that Rep. Cory Gardner, the Republican Senate candidate who defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in that state, was not conservative enough. She was especially frustrated that Gardner had spent months playing the Democrats' game of "Hispandering" - reaching out to an ethnic group that accounts for a fifth of Colorado residents. Media reports that surfaced after the election confirmed that Gardner made a significant pitch to Hispanic voters, and he certainly wasn't alone. The Republican National Committee, which sent workers to 11 states with large Hispanic populations, dispatched three full-time Hispanic outreach coordinators to Colorado.

On the other hand, after Gardner's victory, I heard a pair of conservative radio hosts boast that the senator-elect had run a "flawless" campaign with a strategy that should serve as a model for other Republicans going forward. They didn't specifically mention Hispanic outreach but they didn't have to. It was an integral part of the winning strategy.

The same radio hosts also crowed about the runaway re-election victories by two rising stars in the Republican Party: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Martinez beat her Democratic opponent by nearly 15 points, and Sandoval - who earned 70 percent of the vote in his race - walloped his Democratic rival by more than 40 points. Even in states where most Hispanics are registered Democrats, both of these Republicans got more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.

But here's where it gets interesting. In the past, both Martinez and Sandoval have openly called for comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, Martinez went so far as to mock Mitt Romney's half-baked suggestion in 2012 that illegal immigrants might "self-deport" if the climate in the United States became inhospitable.

And speaking of Romney, before the election, the former Republican nominee confidently declared that an immigration reform bill was "going to happen" if Republicans captured the Senate. And yet now that the GOP has done just that, conservatives who oppose what the right wing prefers to call "amnesty" insist that the GOP's election victories are a clear mandate against passing such a bill. But, if those voters who support immigration reform put any stock at all in what Romney said, and felt more comfortable voting Republican because of it, the opposite might well be true.

For Republicans, winning races was easy. It's sorting out these contradictions and uniting around common goals that will be difficult.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is

© 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group

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