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USA Today

Republican Party On A Crusade To Win Over Hispanic Americans Their Votes Could Tip Next Election

By Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto

August 5, 2001
Copyright © 2001 USA Today. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- Hispanic Americans are the hottest commodity in politics.

Both political parties covet the votes of the nation's fastest- growing minority, but for Republicans it's a crusade. A simple calculation fuels their intensity: If Hispanics and other groups vote in the 2004 presidential race in the same proportions they did last year, President Bush will lose re-election by 3 million votes.

The Republican priority on winning Hispanic Americans' votes is evident at the White House. The Bush administration is considering granting legal residency to 3 million illegal immigrants from Mexico. Bush has signaled his intention to name a Hispanic American to the next vacancy on the Supreme Court. He has promised to speed applications for citizenship.

For both political parties, the quest for Hispanic Americans' votes is a matter of survival. As the Hispanic population grows, so does political clout, and both parties believe that ignoring this major societal shift would mean defeat in future elections.

Democrats have traditionally appealed to immigrants as natural allies on issues such as the minimum wage, education and government services. Republicans have done little to counter that, but now the GOP is embarking on a national recruiting campaign, one voter at a time.

Republicans are courting Hispanics who have been in the USA for several years and are building their own businesses, as well as a new generation of immigrants who are more educated and entrepreneurial.

Outreach to Hispanics was once confined to states where many newcomers settled. Now almost every state is experiencing dramatic growth in Hispanics, which means outreach is as important in Iowa and Nebraska as in California and Florida.

The administration's decision in June to stop military-training exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques was driven by Bush's desire to please Hispanic voters. The White House is recruiting Hispanics for jobs at all levels of the administration; the informal goal is to fill at least 10% with Hispanics. Bush's Saturday radio addresses are re-recorded by a staffer who speaks Spanish for airing on Spanish stations.

The GOP's pursuit of Hispanic-American voters is most intense at the grass-roots level. For the first time, Republicans are setting up voter registration tables outside county courthouses beside those of Democrats to register new citizens as party members. They're also recruiting supporters on the doorsteps of suburban homes -- as GOP volunteers go door to door in Hispanic neighborhoods -- and over kitchen tables -- as Republicans tutor Hispanics in English or coach them on starting businesses.

"We're taking baby steps, but this is the beginning," says David Kramer, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party. "What's at stake for the Republican Party is political survivability. What's at stake from the Hispanic perspective is significant political influence at the local, state and national levels."

Kramer, whose mother is Panamanian, is a one-man consultant for Hispanic groups in Nebraska. He speaks in fluent Spanish to Hispanic groups and helps Hispanic cultural organizations raise money and fill out grant applications.

Establishing one-to-one relationships is the key to generating more Republican votes, Kramer says. "There's a natural affinity," he says. "As Hispanics, we're very hard-working and industrious folks who want a hand up and not a handout. We're entrepreneurial, religious and share the moral values of the Republican Party.

"We as Hispanics believe many of the things the Republican Party believes. We just don't know that what we believe is Republican."

Affinity for Democrats

Bush won the votes of 35% of Hispanic Americans last November, and Al Gore received 62%. Census data and surveys at the polls last year make the GOP's challenge clear: Hispanics are 12% of the U.S. population, up from 9% in 1990.

The surge creates the potential for millions of new Hispanic voters. In recent elections, Hispanics voted overwhelmingly Democratic. That means the GOP is at risk of losing some reliably Republican states, including Colorado, Florida, Missouri and Nevada. In places such as Michigan and New Jersey -- "swing states" that go either way from one election to the next -- the boom in Hispanic- American voters could make them solidly Democratic.

"For us to be successful . . . we've got to expand," says Jack Oliver, the deputy director of the Republican National Committee, who is coordinating the outreach. "We have to make the Republican Party a place that is welcoming, and that's a long-term challenge."

Bush campaigned as a different kind of Republican. His Texas roots, his passable Spanish and his emphasis on education helped him win nearly half the Hispanic Americans' votes when he won a second term as Texas governor in 1998.

During the presidential campaign, Bush told the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group for Hispanic Americans, "It is definitely important for my candidacy for president to reach out to voter groups that don't necessarily believe the Republican Party's message is meant for them." After that speech, he said, "I know I have an image to battle."

The image of his party, which Bush described as "anti-newcomer," was reinforced by California Proposition 187, a Republican-backed ballot measure in 1994 that would have ended education and other state services for illegal immigrants. Bush opposed that plan, which was approved by California voters but blocked by courts. He defied party doctrine by supporting the idea of public schools teaching some classes in both English and Spanish.

But Hispanic Americans have an affinity for Democrats. In polls, most say they identify with the party on such issues as education and government services.

Jeremy Gonzalez Ibrahim of the Republican Party in Chester County, Pa., puts it bluntly: "A lot of Latinos think the Republican Party is just for rich people."

On Election Day, Hispanic Americans rejected Bush by margins that surprised him after his success with them in Texas, and it triggered alarm among Republicans. In California, 28% of Hispanic Americans voted for Bush while 67% voted for Gore. In Colorado, 22% of Hispanics voted for Bush and 70% for Gore. In Florida, where Bush invested the most time courting Hispanics, he received 45% to Gore's 52%. Cuban-American voters there have traditionally supported GOP candidates because of their tougher stance on Fidel Castro.

If Bush had won 10 more Hispanic votes in each of Florida's 67 counties, there would have been no deadlock and no recount.

A Gallup Poll in June found that six in 10 Hispanics approve of the job Bush is doing, about the same percentage as Americans overall and higher than his 35% share of the Hispanic-American vote. Republicans interpreted that poll as a sign of progress; Democrats viewed it as a call to action.

About the same time, pollster Sergio Bendixen warned Democrats that Bush is connecting with Hispanics with his emphasis on education, immigration reform and free trade.

He recommended that the Democratic National Committee find a spokesman to appeal to Hispanics, stress the traditional loyalty of Hispanic-American voters to the Democratic Party and press the case that Bush "is not a good friend" of the Hispanic community.

Democrats' support for public education, a higher minimum wage and gun control are their best bets for reinforcing the connection with Hispanics, Bendixen said.

That same week, Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe went to California to help register hundreds of newly naturalized citizens to vote, and the party announced a program to train organizers to register newcomers. "We've always worked with the Latino community, but now we're going to do it more aggressively, more strategically and more pro-actively than ever before," McAuliffe says.

For the first time, the DNC is courting Hispanic voters in a non- election year with broadcast and print ads in Spanish. One set of ads highlights charges that minority voters, including Hispanics, were discriminated against in the 2000 election. The DNC is polling to determine which issues concern Hispanics most and tailoring direct messages to take into account regional or ethnic differences. In other words, some issues may appeal more to Mexican-Americans while other may have resonance with Puerto Ricans .

"The Republicans have seen the Census numbers and now are trying to create the illusion of inclusion. But we are the ones who are right on the issues to Hispanics and we have a record to prove it," DNC communications director Maria Cardona says.

Anticipating elections in 2002

Both parties' efforts will intensify as they anticipate next year's elections. Republicans have targeted several states, including California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. The common denominator: fast- growing Hispanic populations.

Even states not on that list have set ambitious goals for registering Hispanic-American voters. Georgia, for example, has a target of 25,000.

The RNC has asked state parties to have Spanish versions of their Web sites up by the end of this year and to recruit bilingual volunteers.

"This is no different from regular politics," says Bill Cobey, chairman of the North Carolina GOP, who recently joined his local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "It's all about building one-on-one relationships, and that's going to translate into new voters for the Republican Party."


It's more than just voter registrations

Republicans are trying to win Hispanic voters with a variety of grass-roots approaches:

    * In Raleigh, N.C., members of the Wake County Republican Party help Hispanic immigrants fill out citizenship applications. Republicans work with a literacy council to match volunteer English tutors with newcomers. The county GOP also links business executives, lawyers and accountants with Hispanics who want to start their own businesses. North Carolina's Hispanic population grew nearly 400% in the 1990s, from 76,000 to 379,000. Newcomers were drawn to jobs in the Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham areas, which experienced a boom in banking and research.

Andrew Finlayson, chairman of the Wake County GOP, says his plan is to build relationships with prospective GOP voters, not to make direct appeals for their support. "We simply say, 'We're the Republican Party, and we're here to help you,' " he says. "It's a competition of ideas with the Democrats."

    * In the Philadelphia area, volunteers from the Chester County GOP are knocking on doors to recruit voters. They distribute brochures, written in Spanish, left over from Bush's presidential campaign. The workers suggest that Hispanics keep track of how well Bush fulfills campaign pledges, including immigration reform.

In Chester County and other communities across the nation, Republican Party representatives set up voter registration tables outside courthouses to recruit people minutes after they are sworn in as citizens.

Pennsylvania's Hispanic population grew 70% to 394,000 from 1990 to 2000.

Hispanics were drawn to hospital and service jobs in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

    * In Michigan, the state Republican Party has asked all 83 county Republican committees to name by Dec. 1 a vice chairman responsible for recruiting Hispanic-American voters. Next year, they'll organize door-to-door registration drives. Jason McBride, director of coalitions for the Michigan GOP, says the state's 325,000 Hispanics are too big a voter bloc to ignore. "If we knew that there were 325,000 business owners, we'd be going after them," he says.

    * In Nebraska, state party Chairman David Kramer is recruiting Hispanics to run for school boards, city councils and the state Legislature. There's just one in the Legislature now.

Nationally, there are about 5,000 Hispanic elected and appointed officials, from sheriffs and school board members to mayors and U.S. representatives. They represent 1% of elected officials and 4% of members of Congress. Next year in New Mexico, two Hispanic- Americans, GOP state Rep. John Sanchez and Bill Richardson, Energy secretary in the Clinton administration, could face off in the governor's race.

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