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Upbeat signs for GOP before midterm vote may mask its Latino problem

For Republicans roaring into the midterm election, the last few weeks have brought a wave of good news. President Obama's poll numbers continue to hover in the 40s. Democrats' hopes of holding the Senate look slimmer by the day. And the GOP heralded last week's win in Florida's special congressional election as evidence that their anti-Obamacare strategy is working.

But some Republican strategists and donors fear that buoyant mood spells trouble for the party down the road — by masking the long-term problems that were so evident after the 2012 election. Chief among them: the GOP's abysmal performance among Latinos and the growing influence of minority voters in battleground states that will create a steeper climb to the presidency for Republicans with each passing year.

In the short term, Republicans have a reprieve: The makeup of the electorate in November is expected to favor the GOP, because nonpresidential elections draw lower concentrations of the kinds of voters that they have struggled to win over.

In 2012, exit polls show Mitt Romney beat Obama by 20 percentage points among white voters, which made up 72% of the electorate, while losing resoundingly among all other racial groups. In this November's midterm election, whites will constitute a higher percentage of the electorate than in 2012, about 75%, according to GOP pollster Whit Ayres.

But that is a very different reality from the one Republicans will face in November 2016. If the GOP does well this fall, "it gives you a false picture about the health of the party heading into a presidential election year," Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said.

"The long-term problem for Republicans is that in every demographic that is growing in the country, Democrats are gaining market share," he said, and "in every demographic group in the country that is shrinking, Republicans are gaining market share."

But with trends going in their favor this year, some Republicans in Congress saw no need to get bogged down in a party fight over immigration legislation stalled in the House. Their argument: It might be an easier sell among Republicans in 2015, when this year's fractious party primaries are behind them and they might have control of the Senate.

Absent any movement on that front — and despite frustration over increasing deportations under Obama — Latinos gave Democrats far higher marks in a survey released by the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project in December.

In the survey, about 72% of Latinos said the Democratic Party cared about the issues facing their community, compared with 39% who said Republicans did. The sentiments were shared by Asians, whose voting strength is also burgeoning.

This week, on the one-year anniversary of the post-2012 report by Republican leaders that emphasized the need to reach out to Latinos, women and young voters, GOP officials were brushing aside questions about a comprehensive immigration measure whose passage the report had urged. Instead, they focused on a $10-million initiative to engage with minority voters.

Under the initiative, at least 20 paid staffers are working on Latino outreach across 10 states, including California, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. Many of the state efforts are still in what the party calls "phase one": identifying influential leaders and assessing events, festivals and gatherings where they believe the GOP should have a presence.

This Friday in Florida — where Latinos made up 17% of the electorate in 2012, up from 14% four years earlier — the Republican National Committee will announce a new Latino state advisory council in Miami, and on Sunday it will sponsor a float in the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Orlando for the first time in more than a decade. The party will have more than a dozen volunteers surveying attendees as part of its voter identification project.

"The real purpose there is to listen to the community's concerns," said Jennifer Sevilla Korn, the RNC's deputy political director, who was the national Hispanic director for George W. Bush's campaign in 2004. (His share of Latino voters that year was the highest for a Republican recently.) "We want to know what their top issues are, what would motivate them to go to the polls in November, and what would motivate them to vote Republican."

Sally Bradshaw, one of the authors of the GOP report and a top advisor to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, noted that, in contrast to Republican refusals to take up immigration in Congress, Republicans in Florida are reaching out.

The Florida House on Thursday approved legislation that would allow certain students in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition rates. Its final prospects in the Legislature are uncertain, but it's a priority for the House speaker and some other Republicans. A similar measure narrowly passed a state Senate committee this week.

"In the states, you're starting to see more and more engagement on issues affecting immigrants," Bradshaw said. "I don't think you can just look to federal immigration reform. Look to the states where Republicans are leading on this issue."

But states like Florida and Texas — where the GOP has made inroads with Latinos — remain the exception. Most Republicans in Congress oppose immigration measures that might be seen by party regulars as going easy on lawbreakers. The party's presidential primaries and caucuses in recent cycles have been driven by conservative activists who are the most strident opponents of comprehensive immigration measures, and 2016 seems unlikely to be any different.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry faced a backlash in the 2012 Iowa caucuses because he had signed legislation allowing children of immigrants without legal status to pay reduced in-state tuition at public colleges. Romney, the eventual nominee, sought to project a firm approach on the issue just before the Florida primary by calling for the "self-deportation" of millions of immigrants. (He won the primary but his standing among Latinos never recovered.)

A year after Republican leaders sought to change the party's image, no consensus has yet emerged about how to do it.

"My fear is that a good 2014 will disguise some of the fundamental problems that Republicans need to address if they are ever going to elect another president," pollster Ayres said.

maeve.reston@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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