Five years after former President George W. Bush attracted nearly half of the Hispanic vote in the 2004 presidential election, Hispanic Republicans are worrying that support for the party among Latinos is in a free fall.
The mood was distinctly downbeat at times at a recent Capitol Hill gathering sponsored by the Republican National Hispanic Assembly (RHNA) on the "Future of Hispanics in the GOP." For some, the basic question was whether there was any future to discuss.
Leading Hispanic Republican strategists say the natural attraction the party should enjoy with churchgoing, socially conservative Latino voters is being overwhelmed by a single issue: the party's hard-line stance on illegal immigration.
"We know that the party will not recover its majority until we get this right," said RHNA Chairman Danny Vargas.
Conservative pundit and former Maryland Senate candidate Linda Chavez described how Ronald Reagan helped persuade her to vote Republican for the first time in 1980 and how the party's policy and rhetoric on immigration are driving her and other Hispanics away.
"I'm sitting back," she said. "I do not feel as at home with the Republican Party as I did in 1984-85, and that is a problem our party is going to have to come to terms with."
Party leaders say they recognize the need to mend fences. According to exit polls, Democrats scored a net gain of 13 percent in the presidential election and 15 percent in House races between 2004 and 2008. Republican defections have been particularly severe in states where Hispanics make up at least 30 percent of the electorate, including Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico.
President Bush received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, compared with Sen. John Kerry's 53 percent — a record showing for a Republican candidate. In 2008, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain received just 31 percent of the national Hispanic vote, compared to Mr. Obama's 67 percent.
In 2004, Republicans held five of the nine congressional districts along the U.S.-Mexican border; in 2009, all nine seats are occupied by liberal Democrats.
"That's not a trend. That's a bloody massacre," said Richard Nadler, president of Kansas-based conservative think tank Americas Majority foundation. Mr. Nadler has emerged as a leading voice calling for an overhaul of the Republican Party's stance on illegal immigration and what he calls the policy of "mass deportation."
New Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele told The Washington Times in an interview earlier this month he planned to revive the party by reaching "beyond our comfort" zone in the South and Southwest to Democratic-leaning strongholds in the Northeast and Midwest.
"We need messengers to really capture that region — young, Hispanic, black, a cross section," he said. "We want to convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands on principles. But we want to apply them to urban-suburban hip-hop settings."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who heads the Republican senatorial campaign for 2010, both addressed the need for the party to reach out to Hispanics at last week's C-PAC convention.
Said Mr. McConnell, "In the last election, Hispanic voters turned out in far greater numbers for the Democrat candidates, and sadly, the party that was founded on the principle of racial equality attracted just 4 percent of the African-American vote in the last presidential election. These are not reasons to abandon the effort. They are reasons to work twice as hard."
Mr. Cornyn, like many Republican leaders, rejected what he called the Democratic approach of "identity politics" but said the party should be able to attract Hispanic voters with a message of social conservatism, support for small business and rejection of "demigods" like leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Despite differences on immigration, Mr. Cornyn said Republicans had to work harder to boost Hispanic support.
"We need to show up not just at election time, but all the time," he said.
Meanwhile, Hispanic Democrats are looking to cement their gains, using immigration policy as a wedge issue. Democratic members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus late last month announced plans for a 17-city "listening tour" to build popular support for fixing the nation's "broken immigration system."
Caucus members say the tour is designed to pressure the Obama administration and Congress to pass a major immigration overhaul bill this year despite the competing claims for health care, education and energy.
"There's always going to be something else we need to do," said Pedro R. Pierluisi, Democratic delegate for Puerto Rico in the House. "The time to act is now."
Mr. Nadler has emerged as perhaps the most outspoken critic of the Republican stance on immigration, and in turn, he has attracted a number of critics within the party. Some say he overstates the political fallout among Hispanics, while others say he effectively embraces "amnesty" for millions of illegal residents who broke the country's laws.
"Nadler thinks conservatives should conform their principles to electoral realities," City Journal contributing editor Heather Mac Donald wrote recently in the National Review. "I'll stick with principles."
At the recent gathering, Mr. Nadler argued that blanket opposition to immigration reform and a refusal to disavow mass deportation will consign the Republican Party to permanent minority status.
The backlash among legal Hispanic voters to the party's policies to date "has destroyed conservative prospects in the Southwest, weakened them in the West, and wiped them out in New England," he said.
Former Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen told the Capitol Hill forum the immigration issue had to be handled in a "rational, thoughtful way," but said the party would do better to focus on economic and social issues as a way to woo Hispanic voters. But he said the party as a whole must continue to insist on securing the country's borders against new illegal immigrants before any discussion on how to deal with illegals already here.
Mr. Nadler countered that Hispanic voters remain focused on the mass-deportation question, undercutting the attraction the Republican Party enjoys on other issues.
"All the other issues are inoperative for us now," he said. "As long as mass deportation is on the table and in our platform, the Democrats are going to beat us."