In an op-ed published in Time last month, Republican political consultant Mike Murphy wrote, "[it] was a huge shock to the GOP when Barack Obama won Republican Indiana last year. The bigger news was how he did it. Latino voters delivered the state. Exit polls showed that they provided Obama with a margin of more than 58,000 votes in a state he carried by a slim 26,000 votes. That's right, GOP, you've entered a brave new world ruled by Latino Hoosiers, and you're losing."
I was on the ground in Indiana during much of the 2008 election campaigns working as an Organizing Fellow on the Latino Steering Committee for then-Senator Barack Obama's Campaign for Change in East Chicago. When I began work there in July, many Latino voters were undecided, having supported Hillary Clinton during the long, dramatic Democratic Primary that had opened many wounds.
What persuaded many East Chicago Latinos whom I met to ultimately vote for Obama in '08 was that they felt vilified by the Republican Primary's chest-thumping over immigration reform -- led by then-Congressman Tom Tancredo. East Chicago's Latinos also shared the increasingly widespread disillusionment with the GOP over the Bush administration's two terms in the Oval Office, terms that left a disproportionately high number of Latinos from places like East Chicago dead on battlefields in the Middle East. These were but two of the many, many grievances East Chicago Latinos had that Republican candidates failed to effectively address during the campaign, if they addressed them at all.
So...why didn't Republican candidates immediately move to evaluate, engage and inspire Latino voters in the aftermath of then-Senator Clinton's withdrawal? This was a question I asked my fellow "Hopemongers" throughout the campaign. The most common response I got was that Republican campaigns were catering to ideologues' anti-immigration bravado. I found this response to be implausible in that it called into question the competence of the Republican Party's strategists, who horsewhipped their Democratic counterparts through most of the last three decades of American politics. Or to put it particularly, many foul political qualities are now synonymous with Karl Rove's name; incompetence is not one of them.
A more plausible variant of the "anti-immigration bravado" responses that were occasionally offered was that anti-immigrant ideologues were indispensable in the existing Republican campaign finance structures; but there is little evidence to support this claim.
Whatever the reason the GOP chose to ignore (and in many cases, offend) the Latino vote, without it, the party's future would appear to be a series of increasingly humiliating election losses. According to research done by the Pew Hispanic Center, "Hispanics now make up 22% of all children under the age of 18 in the United States -- up from 9% in 1980." And the majority of these children [read: future voters] are the U.S. born offspring of immigrants. One can thus surmise that the current and future states of the American electorate is one in which immigration will not be a vague historical statement of "uniqueness", but a flesh and blood reality of a vast, rapidly growing demographic of potential voters. To continue to vilify the "illegal aliens" as "criminals" is just the sort of messaging that could create at least one generation of Latino voters with a deep-seated tendency to vote for the Democratic Party's candidates similar to the unanimity Ronald Reagan inspired among Evangelical Christians for the Republican Party. The difference here is that Evangelicals were a noisy fringe of the overall demographic, whereas Latinos are poised to someday replace Caucasians as the majority demographic in the United States.
Murphy suggests that "[a] smart GOP would be deeply in the microloan and free-English-lessons business in immigrant communities," and that it would also avoid seeking the "cheap applause" of the anti-immigration right. To Murphy, "cheap" is a quantified word. He "made a career out of counting votes" and thus recognizes that a serious strategic approach to the GOP's future must accept that the electoral value of noisy anti-immigration posturing is plummeting at a rate roughly commensurate with its ability to win national elections.
Republican Party strategists should take to heart the extreme sensitivity in the media during this week's Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor to any remark that can be spun into an overall ethnic-, "race-" and gender-related diatribe by Republican lawmakers (and therefore, the Republican Party) against all Latinas (and therefore, all Latinos). This should come as no surprise to today's GOP strategists, as it was their predecessors who perfected the tactics that are now used against them.
But Obama's in the White House now, and earlier this year the New York Times reported that "comprehensive immigration legislation, including a plan to make legal status possible for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, would be a priority in [President Obama's] first year in office." While I have my doubts about just how much of a first year priority comprehensive immigration reform will prove to be, it will be a priority during President Obama's first term; and when comprehensive immigration reform happens, the party that calls it amnesty will fare far worse on election day than the one that supports it as necessary, justice, emancipation, etc. However it's fed to the media, behind closed doors, what Mike Murphy's vote-counting counterparts in the Democratic Party see in comprehensive immigration reform is 12 million potential votes.
Unless the Republicans prefer losing successive elections by increasingly wide margins, they should encourage Republican lawmakers to stand with President Obama on comprehensive immigration reform. I know. I know. But they broke the law! They steal 'merican jobs! They don't even speak English! etc. The fact remains that a most of them are already us, as in We the People, as in citizens with votes to cast. And many more of them will be of voting age or naturalized into the electoral processes very soon. Republicans can't prevent this, and Democrat lawmakers are happy to let a Republican colleague look like a "racist" hillbilly asshole for interrupting a Supreme Court nominee during her confirmation hearing.
Therefore, Republicans should go out of their way to make comprehensive immigration reform as painless as possible. Obama has mentioned having illegal immigrants pay a fine, as criminals. Republicans on Capitol Hill could oppose this aspect of the reform bill as a show of good faith to the demographic at the heart of their landslide losses last fall. Furthermore, Republican Party messaging has always revolved around the rhetoric of the "bootstraps" party of self-determination, manifest destiny, and the importance of family. Well, these are the very principles that brought successive generations of Latino immigrants to the United States.
Finally, when their man from Oklahoma, Senator Tom Coburn, interrupts a Supreme Court nominee by attempting to get on television with an innocuous "You'll have lots of 'splainin' to do," call him on it. Blog, tweet, phone, email, etc. to let him know that interrupting a Supreme Court nominee with a wisecrack--any wisecrack--is not what he's paid to do during a Supreme Court nomination hearing, especially a wisecrack Time can easily interpret as "invoking a phrase familiar to fans of the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, on which Lucy's long-suffering husband Ricky Ricardo (Cuban-American Desi Arnaz in real life) would often utter the refrain in exasperation at his zany wife's antics." But before any of this can happen, Republicans must first recognize that the rise of the Latino voter is as inevitable as a naturalization process for the suspected twelve million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Failing to do so is to insist upon the Republican Party's indefinite political irrelevance.