Republicans don't need Hispanic voters to win control of Congress in the November midterm elections, but they must woo Latinos ahead of 2016 if they want to take back the White House. Those dueling political pressures suggest immigration reform and other issues important to Latino voters and their allies will likely be delayed until after the November contests, but not indefinitely, political analysts predict.
A New York Times analysis published Tuesday found Republicans could keep control of the U.S. House and take the Senate majority even if they lost every single Hispanic vote in the country. But Republicans must perform strongly with Hispanic voters in swing states such as Florida and Nevada to claim the White House in 2016, the analysis concluded. Strategists on both sides of the political aisle said ignoring Hispanics in the midterm elections could hurt future GOP ambitions.
"This is a very radicalized look at voting and while there may be some operatives out there who think that is a winning hand, I would certainly discourage that," said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a nonprofit Washington group that helps register Hispanic voters. "When you are looking at this as a politician, you are looking at the new voters coming on line and that’s where the Latino voters are. The question is who are the new voters coming into those districts? And that’s where I think the trend line is. The Hispanic population is growing very rapidly. They are growing into these districts."
House and Senate races are all about increasing local turnout to secure a victory, meaning any national Republican effort to appeal to more Hispanic voters doesn't necessarily fit into local candidates' strategies, said David King, a public policy professor at Harvard University in Massachusetts. "Money is spent in ways that increase the likely odds of landing a vote, so the 'cheapest' voters are the ones that campaigns target," he said. "Frankly, Hispanic votes are not 'cheap' votes for House campaigns, and so you have a situation in which lots of campaigns are choosing not to try to mobilize the Hispanic vote."
Some Democrats have also ignored hard-to-reach Hispanic voters to maximize their campaign war chests in recent years, King said. "Elections are not in the business of promoting or protecting democracy. Candidates and parties are in the game to win elections -- not to get everyone on board or involved," he said.
The New York Times' findings reflect the urban-rural divide that defines U.S. politics. Minorities tend to live in metropolitan areas while the rest of the country has remained heavily white and leans Republican. In districts held by House Republicans, Hispanics represent less than 7 percent of eligible voters, according to the New York Times. In states with competitive Senate races, Hispanic voters make up 3 percent of the electorate. "Given the Republicans’ current strength across rural areas and in conservative suburbs, the loss of every Hispanic voter would not be enough to cost them the 17 seats that would flip House control," the report found.
While it might make mathematical sense to ignore Hispanic voters ahead of November, issues important to them, including immigration reform, have a wider base of support, Wilkes said. "There are a lot of white voters who sympathize with the concerns of the Latino community and don’t want to be a country that takes a hard line on immigration, so they are not on board with that strategy and they also are not going to vote for these guys if they go really negative on immigration reform," he said.
Republicans also need to get ready to court Latino voters in 2016, when Hispanic voters, as well as Asians, blacks, women and other key minority constituencies, will likely decide the presidential race. Republican Mitt Romney lost the White House in 2012 in part because he received the lowest portion of the Hispanic vote for a Republican in 16 years.
With the Hispanic population in the U.S. outpacing other demographics in terms of growth, the Latino vote is expected to only increase in influence in future elections. The National Council of La Raza predicts an increase of as many as 15.8 million Latino voters from 2011 to 2028. "If it's a close presidential race, they are going to matter in any key state," King said.
To prepare for the next presidential contest, the Republican National Committee began its most expansive Hispanic outreach effort ever last year, with workers going to local meetings, canvassing door-to-door within Latino neighborhoods and new voter registration efforts, according to USA Today. GOP lawmakers are also increasingly appearing on Spanish-language media outlets.
Outside groups are also doing their part. The LIBRE Initiative, a nonpartisan Washington group, has sent 35 full-time workers to key swing states to register Hispanic voters and promote basic conservative principles. Brian Faughnan, a spokesman for LIBRE, said he has been encouraged by Republican efforts to reach out to Latino voters this year, but those efforts need to be sustained through 2016.
“We think it would be silly of any party to cede any large segment of the population, particularly the Latino population, which makes up more and more of the electorate with every election,” he said. "We think Latinos need to engage, they need to be involved."