Republican leaders have said there is a need to reach out to Latino voters following the November elections. (Photo/Getty Images )

Analysis: Rebranding the Republican party, sans Limbaugh

Some Republicans are cringing over conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s comments a few days ago.  In his radio show, Limbaugh said he did not understand why Republicans should favor immigration reform.  He made the link that Latinos would never vote Republican anyway, especially since the greater number of Mexican immigrants, unlike earlier waves of Cuban immigrants, have a “different” model which is not invested in hard work. “I’m sorry if this is offensive, but it’s true,” he said. “In the old days of immigration, people came to seek a better life, they wanted to come here and be American,” Limbaugh continued. “Now that is not happening – new arrivals are not assimilating,” he added.

Republican strategist and NBC Latino contributor Danny Vargas says while Limbaugh “is just an entertainer,” offensive comments from some in the GOP did contribute to a profound loss in November.  “We lost because the perception the public had of us was that we were intolerant and insensitive, and perception is reality,” Vargas says.  “Now after the election, I have people asking me at the county, state and federal level, how do we re-engage with Latino voters?  How do we get it done?” he says.

But it all started in the summer, during the election campaign.  Republicans such as Jeb Bush or Latino Republicans like Juntos Con Romney co-chair Carlos Gutierrez warned about Republicans alienating Latino voters through harsh language or rhetoric -whether it was calling for electric fences on the border, comparing immigrants to dogs, or calling for voluntary deportation. And after Hispanics‘ resounding support for Obama in the November elections, Mitt Romney’s comments that Obama won because of  ‘gifts’ to Latinos and blacks was swiftly condemned by non-Latino and Latino Republicans.  A ‘slap in the face’ and ‘disturbing’ were among the phrases used at the time.

“It’s no secret, we had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments,” said Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal during the Republican National Committee winter meeting. “I’m here to say, we’ve had enough of that.”

Fast forward a couple of months, and many feel like things have changed. “If you think that just 4 months back there was talk of self-deportation and Arizona being a model for the country — it’s incredible,” says Marielena Hincapié, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), speaking about the emerging consensus on immigration reform, including Republican support for a pathway to citizenship.  Similarly, SEIU labor leader Eliseo Medina said he was pleased the debate on immigration reform “is on the merits of the plan, instead of on demonizing immigrants.”

Arizona State University political scientist Rodolfo Espino says the Republican “angst and teeth gnashing” is not unusual for the “out” party after an election. “We saw that when the Democrats were out of power; they had their struggles on some issues, including their position on the wars and how to fight the war on terror,” says Espino.

Now, says Espino, it is immigration which Republicans are debating.  “At the leadership level, the GOP is signaling change has to take place,” Espino explains.

A few days ago, Arizona Senator John McCain was pretty blunt about the political repercussions of the GOP and immigration.

“The Republican Party has failed to understand to a significant degree the importance of this issue to our Hispanic voters,” McCain said recently.  In a state like his, he explained, this trend “means we will go from Republican to Democrat over time.”

Espino says McCain’s frank talk is not “crass,” as he has heard some people say.  “As a political scientist, I applaud McCain for saying that politics is about winning,”says Espino.  “And for Latinos who have been advocating for immigration reform,”  Espino says, “this is what many worked for, so it’s a good thing.”

And while Republicans who are trying to mend fences with Latino voters cannot control all voices in the party, the Hispanic Leadership Network did send a memo this week advising Republican legislators not to use terms like amnesty, anchor babies, self-deportation, and electric fences.

So what about the comments made by some in the Republican party, such as former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, who said Latinos will not vote Republican despite immigration legislation?

Both Vargas and Espino say Latino voting trends do not show a built-in permanent constituency of Democratic voters.

“I went from Democrat to Republican many years ago because I felt Republicans were the “grownup” party which would tackle the big problems, says Vargas. “Now, we have to fix our immigration system, which is not a Democratic or Latino problem, it’s an American problem, yet it has frankly kept us from having a dialogue with Hispanics” says Vargas.

“I had family members who loved Ronald Reagan in the 80s and intensely disliked Pete Wilson in the 90s,” says Espino. “Bush got almost 40 percent of the Latino vote,” he adds.

Yet what Espino thinks is the biggest example of how Latinos are ‘persuadable voters” is a Latino Decisions pre-election poll of Latino voters.  “The question was would they consider voting for a Republican candidate if they supported immigration reform,” says Espino.  “The state with the highest amount of Latinos saying they would was in Arizona – the birthplace of SB1070.”

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