The Republican handwringers and recriminators are taking to Washington salons and opinion columns to lament the party’s failure to appeal to Hispanics in the 2012 election. Instead, they ought to go to Grundy Center or Hampton, Iowa.
It was there in the summer of 2007 that Mitt Romney, seeking the Republican presidential nomination, went to town meetings and got an earful on illegal immigration. He generally had been a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform; after a series of town halls, he became the leading immigration basher in the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries.
“He morphed into that position to make a connection with these voters,” says Douglas Gross, who ran Romney’s Iowa presidential campaign in 2007.
The Republican problem on immigration and other issues won’t be solved with just a Washington fix, such as passing an immigration bill or nominating Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as the party’s presidential candidate. The Republican political base is intolerant, stridently so, on issues such as immigration, religion and gay rights.
Romney and the people around him may have been soft on principle; they weren’t dumb. Because conservatives were suspicious of the candidate anyway, the Romney camp felt compelled to play the nativist card.
Last autumn, he savaged Texas Gov. Rick Perry for being too soft on immigration; his super political action committee then ran 1,501 commercials in Iowa attacking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the issue. The campaign later ran 2,300 ads assailing another rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, for his positions.
Then, in the general election, Romney ran spots, including one featuring his Spanish-speaking son, pledging support for a bipartisan solution on immigration.
Hispanics didn’t buy it. They voted 71 percent for President Barack Obama, 27 percent for Romney.
Romney’s experience with the issue — success in the primaries, failure in the general election — encapsulates the Republicans’ core constituency problem. It’s similar to what Democrats faced a generation ago, when their base was well to the left of the country, especially on cultural matters.
Polls over the last year have shown that almost half of Republicans believe the preposterous charge that Obama wasn’t born in the United States; almost a third said he was Muslim, also demonstrably false.
The same sort of extreme views are evident among the party’s core supporters on issues involving women.
Republicans lament losing two Senate seats they expected to win. One was in Missouri, where candidate Todd Akin talked about “legitimate rape” and the other was in Indiana, where Richard Mourdock suggested pregnancy resulting from rape was “God’s will.” Those were stupid and insensitive statements. Yet these two right-wing Republicans defeated more electable opponents in primaries not in spite of such views but because of them.
These attitudes are out of step with the changing face of U.S. politics.
In 1980, the electorate was 88 percent white; 12 years ago, it was 83 percent white; on Nov. 6, 2012, it was only 72 percent white and within several elections it will be less than two thirds.
Obama won 80 percent of the nonwhite vote. Republicans never expected to do well with African-Americans, though the huge turnout surprised them. At one time, the party had hoped to do better with Hispanics. Yet almost every expert on that electorate says a requisite for consideration by many Latinos is that a candidate possesses a reasonable view on immigration.
One Republican re-elected this year was Iowa Congressman Steve King, who once likened immigrants to dogs. Those town hall meetings that Romney attended in the summer of 2007 were in King’s district, the most Republican in the state. It’ll be interesting to see if any of the 2016 presidential hopefuls take on King.
A bright young Republican luminary, Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana and the new head of the Republican Governors Association, last week called on his party to be more inclusive, to reach out to minorities and “not be the party that simply protects the rich so that they get to keep their toys.”
In that interview with Politico, he said Republicans have to “stop being the stupid party” and “cease this dumbed-down conservatism and stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”
This is good advice from a former Rhodes scholar. Yet this is the same Bobby Jindal who signed a bill that his right-wing legislature passed encouraging the teaching in Louisiana schools of creationism alongside evolution. And when the crazy birthers threatened to require a candidate to present a copy of a birth certificate to get on the ballot, Gov. Jindal said he would sign such a measure.
Gross, the former Romney Iowa campaign chairman, recalls trying to convince his candidate that there was space for a pro- immigration candidate, urging him to engage in a “Sister Souljah” moment. That’s a reference to 20 years ago, when Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton took on a violence-spewing rap singer before a black audience, reversing the tendency of party leaders to pander to or gloss over such bad behavior. Romney “wouldn’t do it,” laments Gross.
Your move, Bobby Jindal.
Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News.