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Courting the Latino Vote

How the GOP could win over Hispanic voters


SOMOS MIGRANTES Immigration reform continues to inspire huge rallies across the country, but neither Democrats nor Republicans have done much to support the issue.
  • SOMOS MIGRANTES Immigration reform continues to inspire huge rallies across the country, but neither Democrats nor Republicans have done much to support the issue.

To hear political scientist David Selby put it, the Republican Party is blowing it big-time when it comes to corralling the Latino vote—at both the state and national levels.

Selby, a visiting instructor at UC Berkeley, has just authored a study that takes a deeply researched dive into Latino voting patterns in Santa Rosa. The study arrives as a national debate over immigration "reform" is yet again unfolding in Congress—and in the larger context of a shifting American demographic toward greater Latino participation in electoral politics, a trend most political observers have assumed will be of benefit to Democratic candidates for generations to come.

Not so fast, says Selby, who argues that Latino cultural conservatives are eager to come home to candidates more in line with their values, but that the anti-immigration GOP policies keeps them in the Democratic camp and will continue to do so until the Republican Party "stops race-baiting on immigration," Selby tells the Bohemian.

"Latinos," he says, "are not anti-Republican."

The study revealed an interesting but unsurprising divide in Latino voting patterns: Hispanics overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates in local and national elections, but often express viewpoints on "values" issues that are starkly at odds with positions held by the candidates they support.

Selby and co-author Kelly Wurtz studied elections and various California propositions going back to 1990. It was no surprise to them that they were able to identify many Latinos who express a combination of "economic progressivism with cultural conservatism."

Selby found significant support among Latinos for capital punishment, opposition to abortion rights and a bias toward "traditional" marriages. And yet he found that Latinos largely support progressive taxation policies that benefit the needy.

Selby notes that the largely Catholic Latino voting bloc trends both pro-life and anti-poverty (just like the new Pope Francis, who is from Argentina). "They care about community," he says, "in that they care about those who are less well-off, and they care about the unborn."

Selby identifies the "Proposition 187 effect" as the main reason for the apparent split in Latino loyalties. Proposition 187 was a harshly anti-immigrant state initiative from 1994 notable for its elevation of the uncompromising "politics of mean" into the national debate over Hispanic (especially Mexican) immigration to the United States. Its opening salvo of victimized indignation remains a stunning example of how those politics of mean can get elevated into a legitimate purpose, in this case, the denying of social services to undocumented aliens:

The people of California find and declare as follows:

That they have suffered and are suffering economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal aliens in this state.

That they have suffered and are suffering personal injury and damage caused by the criminal conduct of illegal aliens in this state.

That they have a right to the protection of their government from any person or persons entering this country unlawfully.

Therefore, the People of California declare their intention to provide for cooperation between their agencies of state and local government with the federal government, and to establish a system of required notification by and between such agencies to prevent illegal aliens in the United States from receiving benefits or public services in the State of California.

A flurry of lawsuits and community outrage about its utter heartlessness helped kill Proposition 187, but not before it provided the groundwork that gave rise to anti-immigration legislative initiatives now being undertaken around the country. "Race-baiting by Republicans is turning off Latinos," says Selby. "California set that tone 20 years ago," he says, "and now it can set the tone for finding an appeal for Latinos in the Republican Party."

Selby also highlights California's uniquely Latino heritage when he says that "Latino culture is California culture," and argues that the state is, demographically speaking, 20 years ahead of the rest of the country.

But we reap what we sow. The split over issues and candidates is in full effect in Santa Rosa, where Latino voters tend to be slightly more Democratic-leaning than elsewhere in the country. But even so, the same group supports a range of issues on the right side of the ideological dial, Selby says.

Part of the dynamic teased out in this study may be a function of what Selby calls the "shared agricultural heritage" of many Latinos who emigrate to the United States—rural residents tend to be cut from a more conservative cloth than their urban counterparts. Now the rest of the country, most notably Arizona along with about 10 other states, has embarked on the same kind of immigrant-bashing frenzy that led to Proposition 187, which started as a "Save Our State" initiative in Sacramento and ended with a thud of embarrassment for California.

In the intervening years since the 1994 proposition flopped, the Republican Party has demonstrated a pigheaded indifference to the anti-immigration politics of mean, even as it awkwardly foists wunderkind Latino up-and-comers like Sen. Marco Rubio on to the national stage. Or, for that matter, when it lets freshman blowhard Ted Cruz run roughshod over the U.S. Senate in his zeal to kill Obamacare. Gov. Mitt Romney, in his failed bid for the presidency in 2012, fell victim to a harsh and demonstrably satirical call for "self-deportation" as his contribution to the immigration reform dialogue. Romney embraced a faux platform that would make life so difficult for undocumented aliens that they would "self-deport" right back to Mexico.

Selby's advice for Republicans, not that they are asking him for it, is to "stop annoying Latinos. Stop doing things that are actively alienating them from the party."

It may be generations before Latinos come home to their seemingly more natural place in the Republican Party, though Selby says it's the young people just entering the political arena who drive the voting bloc leftward in elections. And those same Latino voters have not given President Obama a pass on his immigration policies, which have seen record numbers of deportations during his presidency. Still, Selby notes, Obama and the Democratic establishment know they still can count on the reliable Latino vote come election day—at least for now.

Voter suppression efforts undertaken by the GOP are also a factor driving Latinos away from the Republican Party, says Selby. "Everyone knows those efforts are targeting minority voters because they tend to vote Democratic," he says.

The political science professor argues that any GOP candidate for higher office who does a "180- degree turn on immigration" will likely win that election by drawing enough Latino support to turn the tide in his favor. That includes the big man from New Jersey himself, Gov. Chris Christie.

Selby identifies forty-something Latino politicians like Abel Maldonado as a "good example of the type of candidate that Republicans should be promoting." Maldonado, a lieutenant governor in the Schwarzenegger administration, said he would challenge Gov. Jerry Brown in this year's gubernatorial race. He did an about-face on his previous opposition to marriage equality before abruptly leaving the race in January. "It would be good to have a GOP that's a little bit more reasonable," Selby says.

Editor's note: Selby's study was sponsored and funded by the Santa Rosa-based Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy;

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