WASHINGTON – The same Republican strategist who presciently focused his party's resources on winning state legislatures in the last election is now trying to patch up the party's relationship with Hispanic voters, with an eye toward saving the GOP from itself.
Ed Gillespie, the 48-year-old former White House adviser to President George W. Bush, announced Monday that he is spearheading an effort to recruit at least 100 Hispanic candidates to run for seats in state legislatures around the country in 2012.
"The demographics of America are changing, and any political party that fails to recognize that is going to find themselves consigned to minority status in the not too distant future," Gillespie said on a conference call with reporters.
The new effort will be run out of the Republican State Leadership Committee, where Gillespie took over as chairman in 2009. The RSLC raised $30 million in the 2010 election cycle, and RSLC president Chris Jankowski said the group will spend at least $3 million on the Hispanic recruitment project.
The RSLC's focus on state legislatures in 2010 helped sweep Republicans to power in multiple state capitals, setting up GOP governors in states like Wisconsin and Ohio to enact dramatic changes on multiple fronts, including state employee compensation and collective bargaining rights for state workers.
The GOP's relationship with Hispanics, who in 2009 surpassed blacks as the nation's largest minority, has gone downhill as anti-immigration sentiment has increased among many in the party. Gillespie pointed out this deterioration hurt Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. McCain received the same amount of support from non-Hispanic white voters as Bush had in 2000 but lost the election by seven points.
Gillespie said he believes that many in the Republican party are waking up to long-term immigration trends -– Hispanics make up 17 percent of the population and are projected to make up 25 percent by 2050 –- and their political implications.
"In talking to folks about the Future Majority Project around the party apparatus and the strategists and elected officials, there is no doubt that there is an understanding in the Republican party that this is a critical priority for us," Gillespie said. "And that's kind of new. I haven't sensed that [in the past]."
Gillespie said that Bush's "effort to attract Hispanic voters" is "kind of coming back into vogue."
The ongoing economic malaise "is a huge opportunity" for the GOP to reconnect with Latinos, Gillespie said, noting his belief that there is a "growing disaffection" among Hispanics toward President Obama because of the economy. Pro-immigration Republicans, meanwhile, have long argued that Hispanics' values align more with Republicans' support of free markets and entrepreneurialism than with Democrats' ideals.