It’s only been a week since the election and already Republicans are strategizing on how to win back Hispanics, who turned out in record numbers to re-elect President Obama. Much attention is being paid to Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida. Conservative columnist George F. Will said in a TV interview, “…all eyes are now going to be turned to him as a man who might have a way to broaden the demographic appeal of this party.” Politico.com wondered, “Can Marco Rubio save the GOP on immigration?”
In their haste to mend fences with Latinos, the GOP is on the verge of compounding past mistakes. Rubio’s Tea Party-influenced views are out of touch with the Hispanic mainstream. His state’s Latino population is no longer reliably Republican. And Latinos have consistently demonstrated that we vote policy, not ethnicity. It’s going to take more than a brown face to make the GOP attractive to Hispanics; the party needs to recalibrate its positions on issues that resonate with Latinos.
Rubio is ill suited to serve as a bridge between the GOP and Latinos. As a Senate candidate, he wrote an Op-Ed against the historic nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Although his grandfather was undocumented, Rubio is against “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. He opposed the DREAM Act because he said it was “too broad.” He once floated a proposal for a modified version of the DREAM Act, but the idea died after the Obama administration announced its deferred action program. So besides his heritage, Rubio has few selling points to Hispanics.
Nor can Rubio be counted on to deliver Florida’s Latino vote to the GOP. Although Cuban-Americans traditionally vote Republican, this year 48 percent backed Obama. That’s a gain of 13 points from 2008, according to pollsters. The demographics in the Sunshine State are changing, too. Its Puerto Rican population is growing, making the state more competitive for Democrats. Rubio campaigned heavily for Romney in Florida, and yet Obama won the state.
Besides Rubio, the GOP is eager to spotlight Latino conservatives like Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. Yet consider that both won despite a lack of Hispanic support, not because of it. Same goes for Texas Senator-elect Ted Cruz. He was supported by only 35 percent of Latino voters. These races illustrate that Latinos vote based on policy, just like other Americans.
To their credit, Rubio and his fellow Republican Hispanics urged the Romney campaign to tone down the anti-immigrant rhetoric (their advice was ignored). Now Rubio’s advice should be taken as a starting point. Yes, it would be wise for Republicans to dial it down on immigration. However, it is not only the GOP’s tone towards Latinos that needs to change; it is also their policies. Polling shows that Latinos are progressive voters, on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to health care reform. The GOP must devise a broader, more inclusive message towards Hispanics, even if it means shifting to the center. Perhaps it’s time that moderate Republicans reclaim a leadership role in their party. Or maybe it’s time for new voices to emerge; George P. Bush, who is Mexican-American, recently filed papers to run for office in Texas.
In order to remain viable in the long-term, the GOP must learn from the mistakes of 2012. Marco Rubio may not necessarily be the party’s salvation. But immigration reform can be the means by which Republicans remake themselves to appeal to a changing America. Politics is a buyer’s market, and the GOP needs to introduce a better product – pronto.
RELATED: Clinton/Castro 2016?
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.