Perhaps the most enticing target for Republicans is Hispanic voters. Gains in that area made by George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 elections were wiped away last week as Obama captured three out of every four Hispanic voters.
What do we do, Republicans are wondering.
One solution is to identify GOP politicians who might appeal to Latinos. The two most prominent names will soon work side-by-side in the U.S. Senate — Marco Rubio of Florida, who was elected two years ago, and Ted Cruz of Texas, who won last Tuesday.
Of course, familiar faces will only get any political party so far. Policies must eventually match words and identities. This is the spot where Republicans will have an extended discussion, particularly over laws aimed at harassing illegal immigrants.
A little history is useful. In the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan championed a proposal to offer citizenship to approximately 3 million illegal immigrants. “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said in 1984. In 1986, he signed a law to do just that.
Twenty years later, another Republican president, George W. Bush, proposed a law that would do something similar. He failed when conservative Republicans revolted at the notion of what they sneered at as “amnesty.” Ever since, it’s become a contest in Republican circles to see who can show the most muscle when it comes to illegal immigrants.
This posturing trickled down to the states over the past five years as first Arizona and then a host of other states (including Alabama) passed laws aimed at making life difficult for undocumented workers. These states were dominated by Republican state lawmakers and governors who know a base-pleasing issuing when they see it.
The problem is what’s good for the Republican brand in places like Alabama and Georgia turned out to awful when a presidential candidate had to sell himself to a diverse nation.
Former Bush administration speechwriter Joshua S. Treviño told The New York Times the Hispanic vote will be especially difficult for Republicans to win “if they think your political party just doesn’t want you as a neighbor.” More Republicans than Treviño worry that this is exactly the message Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and others have communicated. Undoing this perception will take more than repealing those laws, which doesn’t seem likely regardless.