National Edition

GOP struggles to redefine party under electoral pressure

Published: Tuesday, July 16 2013 1:10 p.m. MDT

Participants march during a vigil for immigration reform in Salt Lake City, Thursday, June 27, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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When the U.S. Senate passed its immigration reform bill in June, it tossed a hot potato to Republican House leaders. Ever since the 2012 election, Republican elites have been buzzing about the Hispanic vote. Any missteps on immigration, they fear, may further squeeze a slim margin in national elections.

Romney’s 27 percent of Hispanic voters fell just short of John McCain’s already low 31 in 2008 and well short George W. Bush’s 40 in 2004. That failure didn’t cost the election outright but it played a key role.

Helpful advice comes from unlikely places, some with conflicts of interest. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) predicted in June that “the national Republican leadership will tell John Boehner if you don't pass a bill, then we are going to be a minority party for a generation.”

Most GOP elites agree with Schumer that the party must broaden its ethnic reach, and some hope passing the Senate immigration bill will allow the party to quickly start pounding pilings for a bridge to Hispanic voters. But not everyone agrees.

"There has been an effort to force Republicans to look at the loss through an ethnic or identity politics lens," said Jay Cost, elections analyst for the conservative Weekly Standard. "But you could just as easily break down the vote among income groups, and say the Republicans lost just as badly."

Those who resist the ethnic lens argue that the complex and cobbled-together immigration bill is a placebo, that the real answer is to reposition the party for the kind of struggling but aspiring working class white voters who surged to the polls in the GOP’s 2010 House victory but stayed home in 2012 when offered a wealthy Northeasterner with car elevators in his fourth home.

Those economically vulnerable whites, the argument goes, are not that different from the Hispanic voters who objected to Romney’s “self-deportation” faux pas. If the GOP finds the “missing white voter,” it will also scoop up at least the chunk of working and middle class minorities it needs.

Why the panic?

The urgency might seem odd for a party that controls the U.S. House and a solid majority of governorships and state legislatures. Not everyone is sounding alarms. Daily Beast correspondent Megan McCardle last week predicted that in 2017 the GOP would likely control the House, Senate and presidency. She said she would defer to the New York Times’ Nate Silver, who obliged this week by predicting that in 2015 the GOP would at least split control of the Senate.

So why the panic? The problem is that the GOP relies heavily on white voters, whose dominance has shrunk with each election cycle in the past 20 years. The white vote in 2012 fell to 72 percent of the whole, down from 74 in 2008 and 77 in 2004. The decline has been steady and significant: in 1992, the white vote was 87 percent of the electorate.

Romney got 59 percent of the white vote in 2012, the highest share since George H. W. Bush in 1988, but Romney still lost — the first to ever lose while scoring that level among white voters.

Supporters of the Senate immigration bill argue that the GOP must move quickly to embrace Hispanic voters. And the quickest way to Hispanic hearts, they think, is immigration reform.

Missing white voters?

Two high-profile conservative voices, National Review editor Rich Lowry and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol issued a joint statement last week arguing against the Senate bill. While acknowledging the GOP needs more Hispanic voters, they held that it is “most important that the party perform better among working-class and younger voters concerned about economic opportunity and upward mobility.”

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