Republican Party chief Reince Priebus said Tuesday that the GOP can make big gains among Hispanic voters even if it doesn’t support legalizing illegal immigrants, as long as the party finds better messengers and tones down anti-immigrant rhetoric.
A year after the Republican National Committee released a report saying it needed to do more to win Hispanic voters, GOP lawmakers in Congress are divided over what to do about illegal immigration. But Mr. Priebus said they don’t need to solve that issue in order to make gains with Latinos.
“I think we do need to tackle this issue and I think there is general agreement in the party that that needs to happen, but I would say there is no agreement to what exactly that package looks like,” Mr. Priebus said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
“But there is also a leap of logic that some people make in that they assume it is the policy that simply drives the improvement — or will drive the improvement for the Republican Party.”
After the GOP stumbled in 2012, many national party leaders and elected officials said they needed to finally embrace broad immigration reform that included legalizing illegal immigrants.
But with action stalled in the Republican-led House, Mr. Priebus argued Tuesday that they don’t actually need to pass a bill to reap some benefits.
Democrats, though, said Mr. Priebus fails to grasp the importance of immigration as a threshold issue for Hispanics.
“Republicans throwing a few outreach staffers around the country in communities they have not been in doesn’t change the fact that they don’t have that grass-roots culture embedded deeply in their party as evidenced by a lot of things they say and the policies they propose,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said.
“Until the GOP changes their core policies, no report or rhetoric, training or staff, will change their electoral outcome,” she said.
The back-and-forth came on the one-year anniversary of the RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project report, which provided a series of recommendations on how Republicans could rebound from the disappointing 2012 results, when President Obama won a second term by besting GOP nominee Mitt Romney, including winning Hispanics, 71 percent to 27 percent.
The report suggested the party beef up its outreach efforts in minority communities, field more Hispanic candidates and soften their rhetoric on immigration, pointing specifically to Mr. Romney’s stiff positions on enforcement of immigration laws as detrimental.
“If Hispanic-Americans perceive that the a GOP nominee or candidates does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the report said. “It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
Mr. Priebus said if Republicans can tone down their rhetoric, they have a chance to reach at least naturally conservative Hispanics — as long as they invest time and money in making the outreach.
“What I will tell you is that actually 37 percent of Hispanics identify themselves as conservatives,” Mr. Priebus said. “But if we don’t go into Hispanic communities on a year-round basis and explain what it is that we believe as a party, then those dots can never be connected.”
“So that’s what I am saying,” he said. “I am saying our fundamental issue is if you are not in the community, addressing the community, then you are not going to see the improvement that you have coming your way by simply being who you are.”
Izzy Santa, the RNC’s Hispanic media communications director, said the RNC has hired upwards of 20 staffers in 10 states focusing on Hispanic outreach and has contacted more than 74,000 Latino voters.
They also have launched paid media ads on Spanish language radio stations, including the latest which promoted school choice.
But Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voices, a lobby group that favors a path to citizenship, warned that the RNC’s outreach effort could stall out, because the issue of immigration reform is a “litmus test issue for most Latino and for many Asian-American voters.”
“It’s a gateway issue in much the same way that pro-Israel position is for many Jewish voters, a pro-life stance is for many social conservative and support for civil rights is for African-American voters,” Mr. Sharry said. “It’s impossible to close the so-called ‘communications gap’ with the fastest growing groups of voters in America when your inaction on immigration reform and the rhetoric of your hard-liners screams ‘we don’t like your kind.’”