“The racial divide in this election presents the nation with a serious choice: retrench or reach out,” said Charlton McIlwain, co-author of Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Elections. “More than anything else, it means that as a nation we must rethink our ideas of what it means to be an American. To do that, I think we are forced as a nation — those on the left, right and in between — to talk more honest, more openly and more frequently about race.”
Simon Rosenberg, founder of the liberal New Democrat Network, said the color divide in Tuesday’s election reflected not racism but demographic change.
“The racial transformation has been so rapid and so profound that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with that. Both parties are struggling with this transition but clearly, the Democrats are doing a better job,” he said.
The long-term worry for Republicans is that Hispanics will go the way of black voters, who vote for Democrats by a 9-to-1 margin.
Republican strategists feel there is time to make an appeal, contending their message about smaller government and less taxes can be combined with a more welcoming tone and policies more geared to the middle-class. The party has a stable of prominent Hispanics, from New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio laid claim to a more inclusive approach that did not abandon party values, saying after Romney’s defeat, “The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.”
Any discussion about the direction of the party leads back to immigration.
Under President George W. Bush, who got 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, Republicans had an opportunity to lead the country toward reform. But a bipartisan deal in Congress fell apart amid fierce opposition from conservatives in 2007 and the GOP has maintained a harder line as Hispanics rapidly become more influential.
Hispanic support for Republicans fell to 33 percent four years ago and Romney did even worse — 27 percent — despite what his campaign said was an unprecedented Republican effort to attract Hispanics.
Now Republican hope falls to leaders like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who warned his party about its immigration rhetoric, and Rubio, who has faced the same crosswinds.
He adopted the harder line outlook in his 2010 Senate run, calling for tougher border security before any reform, but last year he began work on a proposal that would grant legal status to some children of illegal immigrants. Rubio never released the plan, however, encountering opposition from conservatives, and Obama filled the void with a program that accomplished the same goal.
Tuesday’s dramatic results may have provided the tipping point. Republicans see opportunity amid panic.
“The numbers tell the story and the numbers don’t lie,” said former state Rep. Juan Zapata, a moderate Republican from Miami. “People like Marco can articulate a conservative immigration policy, something that would be fair but respect the rule of law, but they have to fight off the people in the extreme right of the party, the people who are blind to the demographics in this country.”
House Speaker John Boehner, who last year declared his chamber wouldn’t be able to pass Rubio’s plan, said Thursday it was time to tackle the issue.
Sean Hannity declared on his radio show that he now supports a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented residents. Columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, “For the party in general, however, the problem is hardly structural. It requires but a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty.”
Former Republican Party chairman Michael Steele observed Wednesday on NPR that every month, 50,000 Hispanics turn 18 years old.
“If you’re not wise and smart about how to engage the Hispanic community,” he said, “we will go the way of the Whig [party] in very short order.”
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.