Republicans have historic opportunity to improve standing among Latinos – or else

On Thursday June 27, the U.S. Senate voted 68 – 32 to pass comprehensive immigration reform that included significant border security components, as well as a path to legal status and eventually citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Among the 68 yes votes were 14 Republican Senators voting yes in support of immigration reform, most vocally Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio who implored their party that they must support a more pro-immigrant position to improve their standing with Latino voters.

Graham and Rubio are absolutely correct.  A Latino Decisions poll released just a few weeks ago noted that 45% of Latino voters would be more likely to support a Republican candidate who took a leadership role in passing comprehensive immigration reform – including 44% of Latinos who identify as Democrats.  What’s more, after hearing a pro-immigration reform quote from Marco Rubio 69% of Latino voters said they had a more favorable impression of Rubio.

At the same time, 32 Republican Senators voted against the bill, some quite adamant in their opposition such as Jeff Sessions, John Cornyn and Chuck Grassley.  In addition, while some GOP Senators helped push the bill along to passage, the official National Republican Senatorial Committee says they will run campaign ads attacking Democrats for supporting immigration reform.  NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring told The Hill that Republicans plan to use immigration as a wedge issue and pit support for immigration reform against “middle-class men and women struggling in their home states.”

The Republican Party is at a crucial crossroads.  If House Republicans stall or block immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants, it will be almost impossible for the party to compete nationally for Latino votes.  In our June 2013 survey we found the Republican Party had an overall approval of 27% among Latinos.  However when we informed half the sample that 3 Republicans had voted in favor of the immigration bill in Judiciary and helped move the bill forward Latino approval of the Republican party rose to 54%.  In contrast, when Latino voters were told that 5 Republican Senators had voted against the immigration bill in committee, only 8% said it made them more favorable to the GOP, while 59% said that information made them less favorable to the GOP.

Back in May 2013 just as the immigration debates were heating up, we asked Latino voters how they would evaluate the Republican Party in the case of a mixed outcome – where some Republican support immigration reform, but other Republicans work to defeat the bill.  As we noted in our May 3, 2013 post, Latinos will view Republicans even more negatively than they did in 2012 if the GOP now blocks the immigration bill:

There is an important caveat though — they must actually pass the bill in order to open a door with the Latino electorate. The Republican Party will not be rewarded simply for trying to pass a bill if their party also blocks it. We find the GOP will further damage their dismal standing with Latino voters if they block or otherwise thwart the effort that has enjoyed significant bi-partisan support among elected officials and the national electorate.

However, if more conservative voices in the Republican Party work against the current bipartisan efforts, they run a significant risk of further worsening their image among Latinos – even below 2012 levels.  In a new impreMedia-Latino Decisions poll released May 3, 2013, we asked Latino eligible voters how they would evaluate the Republican Party in light of both their outreach to Latinos, but also the potential opposition to the immigration bill.

Overall, we found 18% of Latino eligible voters would have a more favorable view of the Republican Party given their efforts to work on the immigration bill, however 41% would have a more negative view than the Republican Party if some Republicans work to defeat the immigration bill, and 39% say their image of the Republican Party would not change from the past year.  Because Republicans like Marco Rubio and John McCain have raised the immigration issue and said their party is committed to working on this issue, they have raised the stakes with Latino voters.  If conservative forces in their party now work to defeat the bill, they will not only get little credit, but their image could grow even worse than in 2012.

It is no wonder that Republican strategist Karl Rove has spoken out three times via Wall Street Journal editorials to direct his party to pass comprehensive immigration reform and do more outreach to Latino voters.  Rove first spoke out in November 2012, two weeks after the dust had settled from Obama’s 75% margin among Latinos.  According to Karl Rove, all the talk about self-deportation lost Romney the Latino vote.  Turns out Rove was right.  When asked in the impreMedia-Latino Decisions November 2012 poll of Latinos voters, 57% of 2012 Latino voters said Romney’s self-deportation views and opposition to the DREAM Act made them less favorable towards the Republican candidate.  Only 7% of Latinos liked what Romney had to say.

Next, Rove spoke to Republicans in a June 6, 2013 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he correctly noted, “Immigration reform is now a gateway issue: Many Hispanics won’t be open to Republicans until it is resolved.”  On Wednesday the 26th – the day before the Senate vote – Rove reminded Republicans, again via his WSJ op-ed that “Immigration reform is a top issue for Latinos as it is being debated in Washington.” In case the GOP forgot, Rove was the last to oversee a successful Republican White House run, and in 2004 helped W win close to 40% of the Latino, and along with it they won Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia.

When we have asked Latino voters how they would react to the Republican Party if they blocked immigration reform one of the most interesting findings of our March 2013 poll was that 33% of Latino Republicans said they would be less likely to consider voting Republican.  The poor showing that Mitt Romney had among Latinos in 2012 could actually get worse if Republicans are now branded as the party that brought down comprehensive immigration reform with one-third of Latino Republicans switching sides.

Now that comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship has passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support, Republicans in the House of Representatives face a crucial test in the eyes of Latino voters.  If Republicans demonstrate leadership on immigration reform behind the likes of Mario Diaz-Balart, Paul Ryan, and even John Boehner they have a great opportunity to improve their standing among Latinos.  However if they resort to anti-immigrant tactics like trying to repeal DACA or pass the SAFE Act, they will lose all hope of repairing their image with Latino voters, and perhaps with it, any hopes in 2016.

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