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Republicans Scramble To Repair Breach With Hispanics

Paging Jeb Bush.

Your party needs you.

In the aftermath of Tuesday's election losses, Republicans have been scrambling to formulate a fix for what went wrong.

A big part of that calculation involves repairing relations with Hispanics, the fast-growing electoral power base that rejected Republican Mitt Romney's "self deportation" immigration solution and voted for President Obama in numbers that exceeded 70 percent.

And they'll need help from influential Republicans like Bush. The former Florida governor, a brother and son of former presidents, has long advised his party to take a new tone on Latinos and immigration and to "get beyond where we are," as he said during the GOP convention.

The election thumping at the hands of Latino voters was so severe that GOP House Speaker John Boehner stunned his Democratic colleagues by calling for comprehensive immigration reform, something he has not advocated previously.

Conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity likewise shocked his followers by advocating a "pathway to citizenship" for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants, long considered anathema for much of the GOP base.

That's plenty evidence that the election is being perceived on Capitol Hill as the equivalent of a Geiger counter that measured a demographic and electoral earthquake under way for some time. And that immigration reform, in some form, will be on the agenda next year.

"I can't imagine that if you're a Republican and have any level of sanity left, that you did not feel this earthquake and want to do something about it before your whole political future craters," says former Republican Congressman Henry Bonilla of Texas.

"If it's not obvious now," Bonilla, now a Washington lobbyist, says, "they're idiots."

What Now?

Not only did Obama rack up a presidential victory with a 71-27 percent edge over Romney among Latinos, but on Election Day, Maryland also became the first state to approve by popular vote a measure that allows some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition.

Republican forces had worked against the Maryland "DREAM Act" effort, as they had for a similar federal bill that was defeated in 2010. The state measure passed with 58 percent of the vote.

"In their partisan, ideological zeal, [Republicans] forgot that Maryland is not Alabama," Eliseo Media, head of the Service Employees International Union, said during a Friday conference call with reporters. SEIU worked to help pass the act.

Medina says the re-election of Obama, who earlier this year suspended deportations of young, law-abiding illegal immigrants, and the passage of the DREAM Act in Maryland, suggests that comprehensive immigration reform "is not the third rail of politics; it's the road to the future."

Republicans, he says, "need to get right with Latinos."

He and Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice Education Fund, say they envision a big role in immigration reform negotiations for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican of Cuban descent.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and, potentially, John McCain of Arizona are again expected to emerge as GOP players on the immigration reform issue as they have in the past. As is Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who was just elected to the Senate.

As a congressman, Flake joined with Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois in 2007 to write the House version of comprehensive immigration reform.

Sharry also predicted that some "surprising people" in the GOP may step up in the Senate, mentioning Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John Cornyn of Texas and Dean Heller of Nevada. "If they lock arms and jump together, it's a lot easier," Sharry said. "Neither the House nor the Senate want to be blamed in 2016."

Graham and McCain are the only Republicans who will still be in the Senate next year who voted for President Bush's comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007. It failed with 46 voting in favor, 53 — including 15 Democrats — voting against.

"A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find common ground," Bush said after the defeat. "It didn't work."

Make It Work?

Reform supporters are looking for Obama to muster the forces needed to raise a new bill.

One Hill staffer involved in the issue urged the president to hold a Camp David retreat with Rubio, Graham, Jeb Bush, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Boehner, and even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg has publicly and forcefully argued that the country can't fix its economy until it reforms its immigration policy.

"I know of no ways to help our economy as quickly and as cost-free as opening up proper ways to people who will come here, create jobs, create businesses, help our universities," Bloomberg wrote in an editorial published in Bloomberg News service, which he owns. "Immigration is what built the country, immigration is what kept this country going for the last 235 years and now we seem to have walked away from it."

Bonilla, the former GOP congressman, says that it stereotypes Hispanics to assume that immigration reform is all they want to talk about.

"Most Hispanics are concerned with the same issues other Americans are — the economy, jobs, education," he says. "Similar to Main Street America."

He says, however, the Romney campaign failed in reaching out to Hispanics in their communities and their homes, and the party failed the community in adopting a strident, ugly tone when talking about the immigrant community.

"The harshness and choice of words can cut deeply," he says. "Republicans need to show compassion and to be reasonable when talking to any ethnic group."

Election results have begun the conversation. The tone already has changed, at least in the days immediately following the election.

And immigration reform will no doubt be on Congress' agenda in 2013. Whether and how it proceeds — from proposals to reform the system to border enforcement, and perhaps, most sensitively, how to address the 10-12 million illegal immigrants now in the country — remains far from certain.

Will Republicans come to the table? And will Democrats, who have a hold on a voting bloc that will benefit them immeasurably in the future, let them?

"There is pressure on Republicans to change their tune but there is also pressure on Democrats to deliver," says Gutierrez, the Illinois Democrat. "Latino voters put a lot of faith in President Obama and he has another four years because of that faith. But now he has to exert the muscle needed to forge the coalition of mostly Democrats and a few Republicans to get a bill passed and implemented."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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