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Memo to GOP: Latino Vote Not Just About Immigration

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Earlier this month, I was invited to speak at the spring meeting for the Republican National Committee, which was held in Los Angeles, California. After a blistering post-mortem on the 2012 elections, in which the party leadership emphasized the need for change, the theme of this RNC meeting was "grow and win." At the opening night reception, Party Chairman Reince Priebus reminded the 200 RNC members in attendance that in order to win back the White House, the GOP needed be much more diverse and inclusive like Presidents Reagan and Bush had been. In fact, presenter after presenter kept on reminding RNC members, how in California, Republicans are now a "super minority," something I can relate to quite well being a Latina who works in Corporate America.

The meeting was not open to the public and the press had limited access, but what was clear to me was that the GOP is still quite divided on how to move forward. Maybe it was because we were in the land of the Gipper, but it also felt to me that many of those in attendance were still reminiscing about the glory days of Reagan, Bush Sr. and of course, W.

At the first luncheon where Dick Cheney was the keynote speaker, Party Chairman Priebus gave out recognition awards to three men, one Asian, one Latino and one African-American who were all in their late 70s or early 80s. It was clear to me that Priebus understands that growing the party's minority base is one of the key ways the GOP can win in the future. After all there are many Hispanics, Asians and Black-Americans that share the conservative values upon which this party was built.

But as the day progressed, I wasn't as hopeful that change was actually in the minds of those in attendance. The panel I was on, entitled "Growing the Party," was put together to help RNC members better understand how to improve their messaging in ethnic communities and featured top communications experts from the black and Asian communities as well as myself.

In my remarks, to help those in attendance better understand what really matters to the new Latino "swing" voters, I said that the reality today is that Hispanics have low levels of emotional connection with the GOP in spite of shared conservative values and that the lack of emotional connection is mainly fueled by negative comments like the one Congressman Young said recently and party positions on key issues that matter most to Latinos. According to the respected GOP polling source Resurgent Republic, the top key issues among Hispanics are: education, health care and help for small business owners. These rank much higher than immigration when it comes to deciding which candidate to support for president and Congress. Surprised? You shouldn't be.

Immigration is not the most important issue for Latinos, but as I say in my new book, Latino Boom II, immigration is an American issue. For Latinos like me -- I was born in North Carolina -- immigration becomes a personal issue because of the lack of Latino coverage in the English-language media. The party's positions and actions are ultimately what is making some Latinos not feel welcome, if not completely alienated from the GOP.

But there is change in the air. For one, the immigration bill being presented this week in the Senate was drafted with bipartisan support, something that hasn't happened in far too long. Beyond immigration, the GOP does have an opportunity to win with Hispanics if they start talking about the issues that we care about like education, and showing Latinos that their values can be aligned. For example, a majority of Latinos support open enrollment and merit pay for teachers, so there is common ground, but they need to take their message to Latinos in the language they prefer, which is still Spanish, and they need to stop putting their foot in their mouth.

It is important to remember that 75 percent of adult Latinos in the U.S. are already citizens and another 15 percent are on their way to becoming citizens. Also, 93 percent of Latinos under the age of 18 are citizens as well. These are the Latinos who are already voting or will be voting soon, but nobody seems to care much about them. In fact the number of Latino registered voters is expected to grow by 20-25 percent each election cycle which means there may be up to 17 million Latino voters in 2016. The Pew Hispanic Center stated in a recent report that the Hispanic Electorate is likely to double by 2030 when they project there will be 40 million Latino voters in the U.S. The GOP needs to start paying attention to this important voting bloc, who by everyone's account made a difference in this past election. The Republicans that attended our panel got that, now we just need to work on the rest.