This is the first of a two part blog piece by Seneca illustrating the history of Latinos and the Republican Party.
Recent commentary in the aftermath of the recent Obama victory and the 2006 Democratic Congressional win suggests that the country once again has moved noticeably to the Democrats. This stems from the Iraq War and the Katrina debacle coupled with the economic crisis which appear to have firmly routed George W. Bush’s party, the Grand Old Party of Lincoln. The undeclared and unwinnable war in Iraq took its toll, as it became a war of political attrition as most ‘undeclared’ wars have; like Korea and Vietnam. The leadership disaster during Hurricane Katrina was plainly lethal to Bush 43’s second term.
In 2004, it was reported that Bush won up to 44% of the Latino vote…some challenged these figures but it does seem that at least 40% of the nation’s Hispanic vote went to the GOP in that election. Not even the more popular Ronald Reagan was ever able to garner this percentage among Latinos. With George Bush, the GOP achieved the highest percentage or portion of the Latino vote that it had ever won in any national election. Making it more significant was the tightness of the election in several key states like Ohio. Yet, even as the GOP appeared to be confronting it nadir in the 2008 elections, it is safe to say that just over 30% of the voting Latinos stayed with the GOP. This is a remarkable figure given the circumstances. Hence, this political behavior certainly requires deeper examination.
First, it should be noted that historically (beginning with FDR) the Hispanic vote, which was mostly Mexican-American, tended to go massively with the Democrats. The slow political empowerment of Latinos began as FDR and Truman lifted them out of the Great Depression. These defining moments were not as dramatic as Lincoln beating the Slavocracy of the South and emancipating the African-American from the shackles of slavery. As this feat made all Black-Americans overwhelmingly Republican, there was a prevailing GOP ascendancy for the next seven decades. Yet, FDR’s leadership role in the Great Depression and his wife, Eleanor’s continuous efforts to bring social justice to the African-Americans began a slow movement to attract voting Blacks to the Democratic Party, especially in urban areas.
But it must be recalled that before the Civil War to the 1960’s, the Democratic Party was solidly based in the Jim Crow segregated Southern States; these Bourbon or Moss Back Democrats were in coalition with big city party machines in the North; like Tammany Hall. If one looks back at the record we find that, Pres. Woodrow Wilson was an avowed racist. FDR, though he fully backed his wife’s commitment, was not particularly concerned with the plight of the American ethnic minorities. Yet, President Truman did integrate the Armed Forces after WWII. The record also reflects that during the post war Hispanics, as they became more politically active, tilted toward the Democrats. It should be noted that Eisenhower did draw many Latino votes, but not in significant numbers.
It was the 1960 election of JFK that became the baptism of fire politically for Latino voters nationally. For the first time, the largely Roman Catholic identification of the Latinos with the Democratic candidate was a driving force. Latino elected officials were minimal during the period leading up to the Kennedy-Johnson period. Only New Mexico had elected Hispanics to federal office (US Senator Chavez and Congressman Montoya both Democrats) prior to this. Henry Gonzalez of Texas and Ed Roybal of California were elected in the wake of the JFK-LBJ victory. Subsequently, the assassination of Kennedy, the ascendancy of Lyndon Johnson and his successful accomplishments in civil and voting rights, Martin Luther King’s unspeakable murder and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination solidified both Latinos and Blacks within the Democratic Party.
The first Republican national candidates who truly sought to reach out to Latinos were Nixon and Rockefeller in 1968. The former who came from southern California (and recognized the closeness of his loss to JFK in 1960) acknowledged the potential of the growing Latino vote. Rockefeller, as Governor of New York, had a sizable Puerto Rican constituency which he had courted in his race for governor. He had made several minor appointments within the Puerto Rican community while in state office. Nixon’s awareness of the Latino vote, during his second attempt to become President in 1968, motivated him to make modest efforts to court Latinos in order to avoid all of them going for the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey. Once elected, Nixon began immediately to prepare for his 1972 presidential re-election bid. He made certain that there were Latino groups advocating his re-election. He made high profile appointments and formally created a political position in the White House (although Johnson had done so but not as formally) to have an outreach to the Spanish-speaking groups (as we were referred to before Hispanic became fashionable). Nixon, in his Southern strategy, was focused in winning-over the formerly Democratic South. When President Johnson’s 1965 Civil Rights Public Accommodations Bill was passed into law, he is quoted as saying: “…there goes the South…” He was referring to the reaction of the southern white Democrats to the empowerment of Blacks and protection of their voting rights. LBJ correctly predicted that the whites in the South would abandon wholesale the Democratic Party. Nixon strategically laid out the plans to permanently capture the South, which had previously hated the GOP for beating the South in the Civil War and imposing Re-Construction.
To be continued…