Lionel Sosa has long been one of the Republicans' most potent weapons come election time. A Hispanic marketing guru, he's crafted successful ad campaigns for presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush aimed at drawing more Latinos into the GOP fold. So his presidential pick this time—New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat—is startling. Part of the reason, he says, is ethnic loyalty: Richardson is the first serious Latino contender. But Sosa, who last worked for Bush in 2004, has also been dismayed by the way many GOP candidates have handled the illegal-immigration issue, advocating policies like building a border wall and employing rhetoric that he says is venomous and xenophobic: "It's just an exaggerated, unfriendly position that needlessly turns away Latinos."
That stance appears to be the root cause of a Hispanic migration from the GOP. In 2004, Bush got about 40 percent of that bloc—a high that largely resulted from an intense courtship by Bush and the now departed strategist Karl Rove. Yet in the 2006 midterms—held after a caustic immigration debate in Congress—GOP candidates got only 30 percent of that vote. Polls this year show Latino support for Republicans at similarly depressed levels. That doesn't bode well for the party, since Hispanic registered voters should hit 11.4 million in '08, compared with 7.5 million in '00, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). Moreover, they live in swing states like Nevada, New Mexico and Florida, where they could determine an outcome. "I am worried," Rove told reporters after leaving the White House in August. "You cannot ignore the aspirations of the fastest-growing minority in America."
Yet that appears to be what the GOP is doing. Unlike the Democrats, all the Republican presidential candidates, except Sen. John McCain, declined to participate in a debate on the Spanish-language channel Univision, possibly to avoid hostile immigration questioning (the network says it's trying to reschedule). They also ditched conventions earlier this year held by high-profile groups like the National Council of La Raza and NALEO. The Republican National Committee has yet to fill a Hispanic-outreach job vacated last November. "The RNC seems to have just given up," says Samuel Bettencourt, a Hispanic Republican who has handled outreach for nonprofits. (An RNC spokesperson says Sen. Mel Martinez, the committee's Latino chair, is committed to courting Hispanics. Martinez was unavailable for comment.) Recently, Bettencourt found further cause for gloom: a job he'd been offered this summer as executive director of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, a prominent grass-roots group, fell through when the incoming board told him it lacked sufficient funds to pay him. "They have no staff, no office … [and] were even talking about closing," says Bettencourt. (The RNHA's new chairman, Danny Vargas, says the group will remain operative and is developing fund-raising plans.)
Among Latino evangelicals, the portrait's just as bleak. They make up a growing portion of the Hispanic electorate and are twice as likely as Latino Catholics to identify with the GOP, according to Pew Research Center surveys. Yet "right now, the nativist and xenophobic constituency is in charge of the Republican Party," says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the evangelical National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "That's a party the Hispanic-American voter cannot support."
Despite these sentiments, some argue the GOP will recover. Once the primary elections are over, the nominee will "take a much more focused approach in reaching out" to Hispanics, says Rafael Bejar, former director of Hispanic coalitions at the RNC. Already, two of the GOP candidates earn more favorable marks than their Republican peers among Latino politicos: Mitt Romney, who's got an energetic outreach effort led by Al Cardenas, the former chair of the Florida Republican Party; and McCain, who championed immigration reform in the Senate. It will be up to them to undo any damage their party has done.