Candidates risk alienating Latinos, GOP insiders warn

For insight into just how risky it is for Republican presidential candidates to antagonize Latino voters, talk to people who ran GOP presidential campaigns.

Census figures alone make clear this isn’t a voting bloc that can be written off. In 2000, Latinos amounted to 12.5% of the population. By 2010, that figure had jumped to 16.3%. The growth has been especially strong in states that will be fiercely contested in the ’12 election — Virginia, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, to name a few.

As inexorable demographic trends change the electoral map, some veteran Republican strategists are watching the GOP presidential contest with growing concern.

Steve Schmidt headed Republican John McCain’s campaign in 2008. He also ran then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful ’06 reelection campaign and worked on President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign two years before that.


Schmidt notes first off that Latino Republicans have done well in some statewide contests. Marco Rubio is now a senator in Florida; Susana Martinez and Brian Sandoval are governors of New Mexico and Nevada, respectively.

But Schmidt says it was a “big mistake’’ for the majority of the Republican presidential field to boycott a Univision debate set for January. Most of the candidates have declared they won’t participate in the debate, stemming from a dispute between the Spanish-language network and Rubio.

“You want to go to every corner of that community and deliver a rationale in a bad economy of why that community benefits with Republican votes,’’ Schmidt said in an interview.

Speaking more generally, Schmidt said the “party’s outreach to Hispanics remains woefully inadequate.’’


“You look at some of the debates that have taken place,’’ he added, “and it doesn’t give you a great deal of hope that the party has gotten serious about Hispanic outreach.’’

When the Latino community is mentioned, he said, “it has been largely around the prism of immigration, as opposed to the prism of economic growth and gratefulness to that community’’ for their contributions.

To be sure, the rhetoric has left some Latino voters unnerved. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney used the term “illegal alien’’ in one of the debates, a phrase that offended some prominent Latinos. Herman Cain has talked about building a 20-foot-high electrified fence between the U.S. and Mexico. After making that comment, he apologized and called it a joke. But then he seemed to stand by it, saying “I’m not walking away from that.’’

Karl Rove, architect of Bush’s presidential victories in 2000 and ’04, said the Republican message needs to be inclusive.


“If the Republicans nominate someone who sounds like he doesn’t like Mexicans,’’ Rove said, “and culturally has no affinity for Latinos’’ and uses language that is “hard and judgmental, then the Republicans could be in trouble.’’

Rove added: “But I sense there’s a recognition that we can’t adopt that tone.’’