During the Nixon Administration, the GOP began to assimilate the White South and all its cultural baggage: racial resentment of the African-American progress and the betraying Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Latinos still in overwhelming numbers remained Democrats. It was in the early 80’s with Ronald Reagan and the rise of the religious Evangelical Right that many Latinos became attracted to the Republican Party. It appears that several considerations must be made to understand this evolving phenomenon. Increasingly, the religious Evangelical fervor among Latinos was also on the rise. The GOP unfairly, but with some effect, branded the Democrats as a party of ‘losers’: the poor, the unemployed, the welfare beneficiaries, the pro-abortionist, the party of San Francisco (Gays and marijuana), anti-military, soft on national security and Liberal-Leftist. This attracted many ‘Archie Bunker’ type Latinos. Moreover, the Cuban-Americans who began their political ascendancy in 1980 with the creation of the Cuban American National Foundation and the election of Reagan, closely and overwhelmingly allied their community with the hard right wing of the GOP. The litmus test for the Cuban Americans is being anti-Castro and hard-line anti-communist. The numbers of Mexican-Americans joining the armed forces is also an impressive indicator of a conservative outlook on national defense. Many Latino professional and small business owners identify with the more conservative GOP. Also, Catholic Latinos aware of the Church’s view on abortion or its pro-life stand are influenced to become more socially conservative. Yet one must point out that, if those Mexican Americans who are Evangelical or more rural or small town than other Latino groups they will tend to vote with the GOP. But this is certainly not in the majority. Mexican-Americans, who at times may be more socially conservative with their rural roots than the Cuban-Americans, they nonetheless remain largely allied to the Democratic Party. Puerto Ricans are solidly Democrat in political persuasion. Nevertheless, the fact that President Obama the first minority Chief Executive received only two thirds of the Latino vote is still revealing. It suggests that the GOP has perhaps permanently captured a 30% of the Latino vote, even though it is generally perceived as being anti-immigrant and basically a party of the White South and the Heartland.
Obama’s minority status did not move Latinos to vote for him as overwhelming as the African-American voters did. One must ask if these GOP Latinos are sensitive to the immigration debate and do they side with general Republican sentiment on the issue. Then again, the Democrats are not breaking down doors to address the immigration conundrum either. In sum, the Latinos will probably continue not to be monolithic in inclination to the Democratic Party, but will be a significant and increasingly powerful actor in Democratic Party activities. Meanwhile, the GOP will continue to reach out to the Latino community in a determined way— as it has in the past– by being the first of the two parties to appoint the first Latino White House Fellow Henry Cisneros, first Assistant Secretary Al Zapanta by President Ford, the first two Latinos (Cavazos and Lujan), to the Cabinet by Reagan and Bush 41. Bush 43 later attempted to name the first Latino to the federal Court of Appeals (Miguel Estrada); plus many other visible appointments. Similarly, the Democrats have also found the need to appoint Latinos to the Cabinet and sub Cabinet like Federico Pena, Henry Cisneros and Bill Richardson.
In the end, the GOP understands that the growing Latino population will certainly be an even more important element in national, state and local elections and must seriously examine how to keep the Latino base of 30% within the party and make it grow. The Democrats must demonstrate that they do not take the Latinos for granted (two thirds of the group’s voters) and involve them even more in the party process and in the governing and policy-making process. The three significant Latino voting groups currently are Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Soon they will be joined by millions of other recent Latino immigrant groups like the Central Americans, the Caribbean and South Americans. The race will be on for their political loyalties. The looming debate on immigration will smoke out many of the hidden sentiments among the American body politic. If one of the national parties allows the debate to become one of being anti-Latino/Hispanic versus being just anti-illegal entry into the US, then the Latino population will react accordingly and move solidly to the non-offending party. The case of California in the 1990s is instructive. When the GOP sitting governor (Pete Wilson) attempted to garner votes by assailing illegal immigrants, the political target was designated to be the medical and school costs inflicted on California. Sadly, the upshot became a fiercely anti-Latino sentiment which was readily palpable. This resulted in a more activist and pro-Democrat Latino constituency. The GOP cannot afford to have this repeated at the national level. The only continuous and reliable Democrat state in national elections and where the Latinos reside in sizable numbers is New York. California is increasingly considered a loyal Democrat state with its growing Latino population. New Mexico tends to have a more independent Latino constituency which can tack Republican or Democrat, but usually it votes Democrat. Texas Latinos are largely Democrat in orientation, tradition and behavior. All six Latino Congressmen are Democrats as they are in California, but the Republicans have become the dominant party in Texas at virtually every level. Many Texas Latinos vote for the GOP on national and state-wide elections. But the majority remains Democrat. All demographic studies reveal that the Latino population in Texas will be preponderant in the not too distant future and the GOP will be the big loser given its current insufficient or indifferent outreach to the Hispanic community.
In the last thirty years, the Hispanic community in Florida has been dominated by the effective Cuban-American political efforts in favor of the Republican Party. However, the election of 2008 revealed that the majority of Latino voters in the state are no longer Cubans. Moreover, the GOP hold on the Cuban-Americans is no longer the case. Recent arrivals of Cubans along with third generation Cuban-Americans tend not to automatically affiliate with the GOP. Additionally, the arrival into Florida of significant numbers of Central Americans, South Americans, Mexicans and the movement of Puerto Ricans from the Northeast indicates that they are not following the traditional Cuban lead on voting Republican. Again, the GOP has an enormous challenge in how to attract Latinos into its big tent. Just electing the National Chair of the Party like Senator Mel Martinez is insufficient. The party must have a serious outreach with a welcoming fervor. Latinos have to feel comfortable with a party’s philosophy on race and ethnicity, treatment of their social and economic issues and concerns and be made to feel an integral part of the membership. In sum, some Latinos have found some solace with the GOP for economic, social, fiscal, national security, and other philosophical reasons. But their allegiance is tentative if the Party’s discourse becomes pervasively unwelcoming.