"The spotlight is on Iowa," said the Spanish-language radio ad for a Republican presidential candidate, "and for the first time it's shining on the Latino community." Though Latinos made up only a sliver of the Iowa population (and a microscopic portion of those who would be voting in the Republican caucus), the candidate was sending a signal to the country as a whole. He wanted Latino votes, and he wanted everyone to know it.
That candidate, you will be unsurprised to learn, is not one of those running for the GOP nomination in 2008. It was George W. Bush, who aired those spots as part of his first primary campaign ad buy in the fall of 1999.
Bush and his advisors didn't forget about the importance of the Latino vote once they took office. In January 2001, Karl Rove told reporters that increasing the GOP share of the Latino vote was "our mission and our goal," one that would "require all of us in every way and every day working to get that done." If they could succeed, one vital piece of the "permanent Republican majority" would slip securely into place.
What a difference a couple of elections make. Although the 2008 nomination race still has plenty of twists and turns left, it's safe to say the Republican candidates will not be trying to outdo one another in courting Latinos. Instead, when the subject of immigrants and their children comes up, it is more likely to be greeted with a chest-thumping contest to determine just which Republican is more committed to building walls and deporting undocumented workers.
One of the early spats (and just you wait -- the GOP race hasn't even begun to get nasty, but it absolutely will) found Mitt Romney attacking Rudy Giuliani, saying that when he was mayor, "New York was the poster child for sanctuary cities." Though Romney was technically incorrect (New York never actually declared itself a sanctuary city, though it was, and is, one in all but name), the attack hit its mark.
One thing that has become clear in this race is that whatever the GOP base wants to hear, Mitt Romney will give it in portions so big they won't be able to clean their plates Hate abortion? Mitt's right there with you, with the fervor of the converted. Think America's terrorism problem is because we aren't being tough enough? Say hello to Mr. "Double Guantanamo." And if it's immigrant-bashing you want, Romney will give Tom Tancredo a run for his money as the most anti-immigrant of the candidates.
There is no doubt that Romney and the rest of the Republican field will find an audience for anti-immigration rhetoric in the primaries. But by indulging this particular corner of the Republican id, they could be doing monumental, long-term damage to their party.
Whatever the particular wisdom of one proposal or another on immigration, Republicans are sending Latino voters an unmistakable message of antagonism, one that could produce a national version of what the GOP did to itself in California in 1994. When then-Gov.Pete Wilson pushed through Proposition 187, a collection of draconian anti-immigration measures, he helped win himself re-election. But he also effectively destroyed the California Republican Party in the near term by telling Latinos (who currently comprise over a third of California residents) that the GOP was their enemy.
The current anti-immigration one-upmanship among Republicans could have the same effect. Republicans like to point out that many Latinos oppose abortion rights and are warm to the idea of the "traditional family." That may be true, but when a party says again and again that you and people like you are the biggest problem facing the country, it's hard to muster up enthusiasm for its candidates. If the GOP keeps this up, Latino Republicans could become like gay Republicans, a tiny, beleaguered group waging a daily battle against cognitive dissonance, scapegoated by their own party and mocked by their friends for associating with people who despise them.
And it is already happening. In 2004, John Kerry won the Latino vote by 58-40 percent, a healthy 18-point margin. Since he lost the overall popular vote by 3 points, this means that Kerry outperformed his national numbers among Latinos by 21 points. In 2006, however, Latinos voted for Democratic congressional candidates by an overwhelming 69-30 percent, or 39 points. With Democrats winning the overall House vote nationally by 52-46 percent, Democrats outperformed among Latinos by 33 points.
The Latino vote isn't just growing, it's growing particularly quickly in many of the most critical electoral battlegrounds. The Southwest, for instance -- where New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado are all currently swing states moving in the Democrats' direction -- could easily become a solid blue region if demographic trends continue and the Republicans continue to alienate Latino voters. Even Texas could become a swing state a couple of elections from now, a prospect remarkable enough to give Karl Rove night sweats. After the 2004 election, Fred Barnes wrote in The Weekly Standard, "Republican hegemony in America is now expected to last for years, maybe decades." That dream is dead; the only question is how long-lived Democratic dominance will be. If Latinos move firmly into the Democratic camp, it could be long indeed.
So don't be surprised if once the Republican presidential nominee is chosen, the issue of immigration disappears from his rhetoric faster than you can say "electoral college." There will be no more talk of building walls, of freeloading immigrants sucking our health system dry, of the vital importance of declaring English our national language. Questions on immigration will be answered with dodges and vagueness, the subject quickly changed to something safer. Not that it will do much good -- no matter what Democrats have or haven't done to attract Latinos, they certainly know which party is against them.
Despite the tired cliché that candidates run to their parties' extremes in the primary, then back to the center in the general election, it will in all likelihood be only the Republican backtracking desperately in the summer of 2008. His opponent will have no reason to do so; the lines greeted with cheers by Democratic primary voters -- ending the Iraq war, providing universal health coverage -- are overwhelmingly popular with the general public. But when it comes to Latino voters, next year and in many elections to come, the Republicans are going to have some explaining to do.