MIAMI — Florida Sen. Mel Martinez's resignation closes the latest chapter in the Republican Party's tumultuous, decade-long effort to woo the nation's Hispanic voters.
The Cuban-American's impending departure could leave no Hispanic Republicans in the Senate and three in the House – compared to 21 Democrats in Congress – and a sense that the national GOP is at a major crossroads with the nation's fastest-growing demographic group.
Although most Hispanics outside of Florida have long leaned Democratic, the Republican Party earned the trust of many at the beginning of the decade by tapping into socially conservative, religious and pro-business sentiment. Martinez both rode and propelled that wave.
"He symbolized trying to reach out to Latinos and being more moderate," said Marisa A. Abrajano, a University of California, San Diego professor and co-author of an upcoming book on Hispanic political behavior in the U.S.
But the heated rhetoric over illegal immigration in 2006, followed by the loss of many Republican moderates, and most recently the GOP's failed opposition to Justice Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination have helped drive away many Hispanic voters. Martinez, as senator and briefly as head of the party, tried to temper the anti-immigrant language, and he bucked his party by voting for Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent. Yet, in the end, few in Washington followed his lead.
"In the vast majority of their values, this party resonates with who I am – except they don't want me," lamented the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which represents more than 25,000 Hispanic evangelical churches across the country.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said Hispanics have a natural affinity with the Republican Party's principles but acknowledged the GOP has a lot of work to do.
"Republicans have to be able to get the Hispanic community to focus on issues where Republicans have the right solutions – and these are critical issues: the economy being number one," he said.
Of course political fortunes rise and fall quickly. A Democratic failure to achieve meaningful health care or immigration reform or an economic recovery that doesn't help average Hispanics could encourage them to give Republicans another chance.
But experts say the GOP has good reason to be worried.
"One election and one resignation is not the end of an era, but it does signify tremendous problems in appealing to Hispanics in Florida, and nationwide," said Florida International University political science Professor Dario Moreno.
Diaz-Balart said the immigration debate hurt his party's relations with Hispanics because it "cluttered the communication waves."
"What they see on television is a local or a state official speaking very negatively about immigrants and then what they see is that that person is Republican," said Diaz-Balart, who like Martinez supports a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
But Diaz-Balart said Republican leaders such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who also voted for Sotomayor, are helping to put the party on a new path. He predicted if Democratic leaders allow an immigration bill to reach the floor, Americans will hear a very different tone from his party.
"Without any doubt how we handle that immigration debate is going to be very important," he said.
Republican National Committee Spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said voters are still recovering from election fatigue, but the GOP is working to expand its grassroots outreach to Hispanics and other minority communities through its state parties. "We certainly have to rebuild and expand the Republican Latino coalition," she said.
Still, Martinez's resignation is a reminder of just how empty the Republican party's bench of Hispanic leadership is outside of Florida, where the party maintains a strong presence, particularly among Cuban-Americans.
Congress' Republican Hispanic Conference now includes Diaz-Balart and two other veteran Cuban-American politicians from South Florida and a third-generation Portuguese-American from Central California – respected leaders but hardly representative of the nation's more than 45 million Hispanics, most of whom trace their roots to Mexico.
As for those vying for Martinez's job, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, is the underdog against fellow Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. Crist has floated a couple of Hispanic names to temporarily fill the seat but has yet to appoint someone.
Those small numbers are a problem, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
"They need not just a Hispanic strategy but real Hispanic participation from within. How are they going to bring in new Hispanics into the party and help grow them as candidates?" Vargas said.
Martinez, a Cuban immigrant, was a county mayor and former President George W. Bush's housing secretary before winning his seat in 2004 as his party was on an upswing. That year, Bush won roughly 40 percent of the Hispanic vote thanks to heavy outreach and an absence of discussion about immigration. But by 2006, following bitter immigration debates – the party would later sponsor ads comparing Mexican immigrants to Islamic terrorists – the support plummeted. Martinez was tapped to head the RNC and turn things around.
He lasted less than a year, fighting with his party over its harsh immigration rhetoric and watching helplessly in 2008 as Republicans hemorrhaged even more Hispanic voters in states like Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and even Florida.
Martinez's last major act as senator was to support Sotomayor, casting one of nine Republican votes for the nation's first Latina Supreme Court justice. It was a symbolic final call to arms. In a passionate 2,500-word speech on the Senate floor – well beyond the standard statement of support – he systematically dissected his colleagues' criticism of her, particularly those related to her comments suggesting a "wise Latina" might reach better decisions than a white man who did not share her experiences.
"They can talk about her speeches, but they cannot talk about a single, solitary opinion in 17 years on the bench where that type of a view has been given life – where that type of a view has found itself into the pages of a single one of her opinions," he concluded.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez, the evangelical church leader, said that despite its promises of change, the party is simply banking that it can survive by winning back independent, non-ethnic, fiscal conservatives.
He is still waiting for a public apology for the vitriolic language of the immigration debates.
"I can tell you firsthand the Latino outreach on behalf of the Republican party is nil," he said. "The Republican Party has one incredible hill to climb. So my question is what are they waiting for?"