Romney’s Attack on Latinos Sends the Right Off a Cliff

Mitt Romney. Win McNamee / Getty Images

For generations, we Texans gave our boys names like William Travis and Sam Houston. Know what the No. 1 name for boys in Texas is today? No, not Rick Perry or George W. For 14 of the last 15 years, it’s been Jose.

With Latinos the fastest-growing segment of the population, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet the Republican Party seems not to have gotten the memo. Take Mitt Romney, por favor. He was once simpatico with Latinos. But as on so many issues, Romney has put his principles in a blind trust and raced to the furthest fringe of the kook right on immigration. He’s comically called for “self-deportation” of the 11 million souls living and working in America without papers. He’s also proposed to use Arizona’s draconian and controversial immigration law as “a model” for the United States. (Eighty-one percent of Latinos oppose the Arizona immigration law.)

And then there was Romney’s brazen move of outflanking Rick Perry from the right, attacking him for signing the Texas DREAM Act, a 2001 law that allowed the foreign-born children of undocumented Texans to attend state universities for in-state tuition. Why did Perry sign the bill? Maybe it was because 94 percent of Republicans in the Texas Legislature—hardly the City Council of Malibu—voted for the law. But Romney doesn’t care. He’s since doubled down on his Texas attack, pledging to veto the national DREAM Act, labeling it “a handout.” (Ninety-one percent of Latino voters support the DREAM Act.)

Now Romney is repeating his anti-Latino flanking move on Rick Santorum, running ads flaying him for voting to confirm Sonia Sotomayor for a seat on an appeals court. “This unprovoked attack is another example of how Romney and the Republican Party are pushing the Latino vote to Obama,” says Angelo Falcón, the president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. “They forget that Judge Sotomayor is an icon for the Latino community. It’s like attacking Martin Luther King or George Washington for blacks and whites.”

Falcón is right. George W. Bush got 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, helping him narrowly win reelection. John McCain got just 31 percent in 2008 and lost. It’s tough to imagine Romney or any other Republican winning without 45 percent of the Latino vote. And yet a recent Fox News poll showed President Obama spanking Romney among Latinos, 70 percent to 14 percent. Romney is leading the GOP off a demographic and electoral cliff.

It didn’t have to be this way. Angela Kelley of the Center for American Progress notes that deportations have hit a record high under the Obama administration, sending 1.3 million undocumented immigrants packing in just three years (more than Bush did in eight). In an eye-popping statistic, one in every four Latino voters knows someone who has been deported or is in removal proceedings. A smarter, more nimble politician than Romney could have wrapped that stat around the president’s neck and claimed a strong share of the Latino vote.

Republican strategist and former Romney aide Alex Castellanos takes a broader view. Castellanos, whose parents brought him to the U.S. from Cuba with $11 in their pocket, believes it’s the economy, estúpido. “So we solve the immigration issue the way George Bush and Ronald Reagan did. When the boat is dead in the water, running out of supplies, sometimes it brings out the worst in us. But when America gets a little wind in her sails and starts heading to a better place, people turn and look over the horizon together. Strong families, respect for each other, and a promising future—that’s how we attract Hispanics ... and everybody else.”

But his fellow Republican strategist (and fellow former Romney aide) Mike Murphy isn’t so optimistic. He applies the same Reagan Rorschach test and sees a very different picture: “We need to reject nativism and give undocumented aliens a way to earn legal residency status and eventually earn the right to citizenship.”

Perhaps Romney will throw deep, putting a Latino on the ticket. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is on every Republican’s shortlist, and Govs. Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico are also rising stars. A Latino running mate might eclipse Romney’s right-wing pandering. But it could also have the opposite effect, highlighting his controversial positions on Latino issues.

Democratic strategist Maria Cardona is dubious that a Latino on the ticket would solve what is a policy problem, not a personnel issue. “There will be no Casa Blanca for the GOP if they don’t change course, and that will be difficult to do at this point.”