Republican officials have long acknowledged their party will need to perform better with Hispanics — the nation’s fastest-growing voting group — in order to compete in future presidential elections. But their outreach efforts still face one major roadblock: immigration reform.
During the past year, the GOP has sank millions of dollars into new field operatives, advertising and voter outreach. It’s all designed to broaden the party’s appeal to Latino voters, who strongly backed President Obama in the last two presidential elections.
But Republicans in Congress have continued to drag their feet when it comes to addressing a comprehensive immigration reform package. That’s a policy change that the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) own post-election “autopsy” report said that the party “must embrace” to compete with voters from Hispanic and other immigrant communities.
In the 12 months since that report was released, the Senate passed a sweeping immigration overhaul with bipartisan support. Leaders in the Republican-controlled House have called the issue a priority for this year, but have said there is no consensus on how to move forward with a reform bill.
The House this month even passed two bills aimed at curtailing President Obama’s executive authority, which he has used to offer deportation relief to certain young undocumented immigrants. That sent a message that while some in the party view passing a reform package as a priority, many others don’t.
Republican activists who are involved in the immigration debate believe the party will miss out on its chance to repair relations with Latino voters if congressional Republicans continue to drag their feet on the issue ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
“Whoever the Republican candidate is, is going to have a very difficult time — almost an impossible time to get enough Latino voter support to win the White House,” Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, told activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference this month.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the authors of the Senate’s bill, said on CNN in February that if his party doesn’t play a part in passing an immigration proposal through Congress, “in states like mine, the demographics will only overtake and throughout the whole southwest.”
The authors of the RNC report have downplayed the notion that gridlock on immigration reform at the national level will sink the party’s outreach efforts.
"You can’t just look at one issue and let that decide how the party stands with Latino voters,” Henry Barbour, an RNC committeeman from Mississippi, told reporters on a conference call on Monday. "It's a big party and not everyone is going to agree on everything. What we encouraged is for the party to deal with immigration reform, we didn't want to dictate what the [solution] should be."
The RNC has not skimped on its outreach efforts. The party has hired 20 “engagement” staffers in 10 states with high concentrations of Hispanic voters, according to spokesperson Izzy Santa. Over 74,000 Hispanic voters have been contacted during the past year.
Officials pointed to success at the local level, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2013 victory, in which he won over half of Latino voters, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s embrace of a bill that would grant in-state tuition to undocumented students.
But those ads have focused on the economy, education and problems with President Obama’s healthcare law. Not immigration.
Those three issues rank high on the list of priorities for Latino voters in most polls, oftentimes ahead of immigration. But immigration remains a top issue, too. Seventy-two percent of Hispanics in a February Pew Research Center survey said it is extremely or very important to pass new immigration legislation, and nine in ten said that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally.
Separate polling from Latino Decisions shows that seven in ten Hispanic voters say they will feel less favorable toward the GOP if the House does not take a vote on a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Wading into the immigration reform debate poses a risk for the RNC of alienating base voters. But the longer the issue goes unresolved in Congress, the harder it will be for Republicans to break through to Hispanics.
"I really believe we should lead on this, as opposed to Obama and the Democrats, [who will] set an agenda which is just going to frame us as being more and more anti-Hispanic,” Rev. Luis Cortés, Jr., head of the Hispanic evangelical group Esperanza, said at CPAC. "They do that job and they do it well.”
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.