Remembering Reagan

At the recent CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential debate in Tampa, the other candidates pummeled Texas Gov. Rick Perry for signing a bill in 2001 that lets illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Santorum accused Perry of rewarding illegal activity with a giveaway intended to win over Hispanic voters.

It was a far cry from 1984, when Ronald Reagan was running for re-election and made a pitch for Latino support. Reagan hired San Antonio-based advertising guru Lionel Sosa to shape the message. When Sosa told him that they would work hard to convince Hispanics to vote for a Republican, Reagan insisted that they wouldn’t have to work that hard.

“Hispanics are already Republican,” Sosa remembers the president telling him. “They just don’t know it.”

Reagan won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, and captured 49 states on his way to re-election. For Latino Republicans like Sosa, Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign was a high point. Ditto George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, where Bush got an estimated 44 percent of the Latino vote.

Next year’s election could be the opposite of all that, but it doesn’t make sense. President Obama has given Republicans a big opening. His support among Latinos has plunged. As of October 2011, Obama’s approval rating among Latinos stands at just over 50 percent. Much of it has to do with the sour economy, high unemployment, home foreclosures etc. Then there is immigration; not only did Obama break his promise to fix the current system, his administration has deported more than 1 million people.

Add to that the big victories for Hispanic Republicans in the 2010 elections, including Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Still, never underestimate the power of a political party to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As Republicans lurch to the right, court the Tea Party, and try to out swagger one another on the immigration issue, they have blown up every bridge that Ronald Reagan built to Latino voters. And in a country that is becoming more Latino by the day, and where this group will likely account for 25 percent of the population by 2040, this is a suicide mission. Every month, another 50,000 Latinos turn 18 years old and become eligible to vote. Republicans had better hope those folks have short memories and don’t hold grudges.

Noe Garcia of Washington D.C.-based Corporate Political Strategies thinks Republicans have a decent shot at winning back some of the Latino support they enjoyed with George W. Bush---but only if the GOP chooses Perry as its nominee.

“If Perry were smart,” Garcia said, “which I know he is, with smart people around him, he’s going to start creating a campaign to bring Hispanics to him. I think the opportunity is there to win Hispanics back. But Perry can’t make the same mistakes that John McCain made in 2008 by lurching to the right on immigration and not reaching out to Hispanics until the 11th hour when his opponents have already defined him.”

San Antonio-based consultant Frank Guerra of Guerra, DeBerry, Coody agrees that Republicans have a chance with Latino voters. But for Guerra it doesn’t hinge on whether or not Perry is the nominee. For him, the GOP’s best hope is for it to take its case directly to Latino voters.

“There are a handful of things that capture a lot of attention and it makes you think the brand is in trouble and that it can go nowhere,” Guerra said. “But then you see the hard work that people are doing to build trust. And, since every election is local, while Hispanics might have this general anger, what’s going to make it or break it for them is what is happening in their neighborhood. I think that face-to-face contact can trump the negative environment that exists.”

Garcia doesn’t sound all that convinced. He thinks the GOP won’t get a fair hearing from Latinos on a host of issues because it is fouling up the immigration discussion so badly. “When you punch someone in the face, it’s hard to have a rationale conversation with him afterwards,” he said. “That’s what Republicans are doing to us. Deportations are a kitchen table issue. Jobs are important to us. But, hey, my parents being able to stay in this country is also kind of important to me. Or my grandparents. Or my uncle. Or my cousins. Or whoever.”

Guerra understands that, and he doesn’t argue that Republicans are blowing it with Latinos. He just thinks that, sooner or later, self-preservation will take over and Latino voters will realize that the only way to be respected is to be in play and to make the political parties earn their support.

“I think the more that Hispanics really digest the idea of the competitive marketplace, the more they will hold their vote,” he said. “Whether there is negativity in the air or not. Hispanics are brand loyal. But that’s changing as they get more choices. The longer they hold onto their vote, the better position they’re going to be in.”

By Ruben Navarrette, Jr.