Despite the stiff rhetoric on immigration coming from presidential candidates, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Wednesday his party has made inroads with Hispanics after a post-2012 election “autopsy” said the GOP needed to take a softer line on immigration.
Mr. Priebus, flanked by Hispanic Republicans running for office in Northern Virginia this year, is trying to do his part for outreach during Hispanic Heritage Month, planning about two dozen RNC events in eight states during the celebration, which spans Sept. 15-Oct. 15 this year.
At a Mexican restaurant on Route 1 in southern Fairfax County, Mr. Priebus said the autopsy report was meant to be a warning that Republicans needed continuous engagement with Hispanics, not just an election-year plea for votes. And he said the RNC has done its part.
“So my question at the time was … what are we as a party doing about it besides showing up once every four years, and the answer to me, as far as the infrastructure goes, is that we have to have a Republican Party that gets to a place where we’re putting five or 10 people every 10 blocks in every Hispanic community in America,” he said.
After GOP nominee Mitt Romney lost what many analysts thought was a winnable 2012 election against incumbent President Obama, Mr. Priebus asked for a review of what went wrong. Chief among the autopsy’s conclusions — which, as Mr. Priebus reminded people Wednesday, was actually called the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report — was Mr. Romney’s stiff immigration enforcement stance hurt the party with Hispanics.
“If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence,” the report said.
GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump is complicating the party’s recovery efforts, urging illegal immigrants to go home and promising to build a border wall.
“Words have consequences. Until Trump and the rest of the GOP field understand that, we will continue to document the instances in which their ugly rhetoric turns into vicious attacks. This is a sickening trend in American politics, and Trump and his followers must be held accountable,” Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, said last week in analyzing Mr. Trump’s comments.
Mr. Priebus said Wednesday, though, that the notion that every potential Hispanic voter has a particular opinion on the issue of immigration is “offensive” to a lot of them.
“There’s diversity of opinion. But if we don’t get into the community to talk about these things, I don’t think our chances are going to improve, and that’s what we’re trying to fix at the national level,” he said.
In addition to the event Wednesday, a roundtable with Hispanic business and community leaders, the RNC is planning a total of about two dozen similar community events in the swing states of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and North Carolina, as well as in Arizona and Texas.
Mr. Priebus used Colorado as an example of recent GOP success, pointing to Sen. Cory Gardner’s comparatively strong performance with Hispanics in his win over former Sen. Mark Udall, and Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, won about a quarter of the African-American vote en route to his win.
“Obviously there’s more examples of that. In a sad way, if we would have done half as good as that, Mitt Romney [would] be president right now,” Mr. Priebus said. “So, I know our work’s cut out for us, but these are the things a competent national party does and there’s nothing controversial about it.”
Perhaps previewing some of the GOP’s message going into 2016, Mr. Priebus also touched on the issues of school choice and access to capital for small businesses.
“We have to talk about issues like freeing up capital, school choice, yes — immigration and others things — but if we don’t build that common denominator over a long period of time, I don’t think we’re going to be successful so we’ll continue to be this midterm party that doesn’t lose and a presidential party that doesn’t win,” he said.