It was no coincidence that, a few months after Latino voters rejected Republicans at the ballot box, delegates poured into a talk on Latino outreach at the California Republican Party Convention in Sacramento this weekend.
Surveying the capacity crowd before him, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado acknowledged that the landscape has shifted.
"Listen, I'm sad that it took a big election to fill this room up," Maldonado said. "Because the Latino community has always been there, and it's the fastest-growing community in America."
Delegates convened in Sacramento over the weekend at a dire time for the state party. Republicans hold no statewide elected office, are clinging to a minority position in both houses of the Legislature and fared poorly in the November elections.
Republican leaders are well aware of their diminished status, and they are also aware of a related trend: At the same time that the number of registered Republican voters in California is dwindling, the state's Latino population continues to grow.
Latinos could become the single largest ethnic bloc in the state by the end of 2013. If Republicans are to reverse their fortunes in California, increasing their appeal to Latino voters will be paramount.
"Everyone is crystal clear that the Latino electorate is what we need to focus on," said Errol Valladares, the newly elected state chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.
During the 2012 election cycle, polls consistently showed Latino voters were alienated by some of the harsh immigration rhetoric emanating from Republican officials and candidates. But rather than talk about a policy shift, delegates at the convention this weekend stressed delivering their message to Latino voters by building campaign infrastructure in Latino communities and getting Latino Republicans to run for office.
"The most important thing for the Latino community is respect," Maldonado said. "Just showing up is respect."
Delegates said the party hasn't done enough to present its platform to Latino voters. Marcelino Valdez, who over the weekend became the party's regional vice chair for the Central Valley, said many voters are "basing their opinion of the Republican Party based on sound bites in the media."
He said Republicans need to counteract that by carrying their message directly to Latinos.
"I think the Republican Party has had a philosophy of, well, people will understand who we are and naturally gravitate toward us," Valdez said. "But the unfortunate thing is that a lot of the voters, they need us to go out in the community and tell them who we are."
Part of the problem is that Republicans have let their operations atrophy in Latino communities, said former California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring. He pointed to redistricting that has concentrated Latino voters in safe Democratic districts and created adjacent majority-white districts. That has given Republican candidates little incentive to make inroads with Latino voters, Nehring said.
And when the time comes to run for statewide office, Nehring said, that neglect comes back to haunt Republicans.
"I would like to see every Republican legislator and member of Congress make it a personal goal to win a majority of Latino, African American or Asian communities in their district," Nehring said, "because it will affect how their message resonates in that community even if it is not essential to their re-election."
Nehring added that downplaying Latino communities has also left Republicans with a thin bench.
"We are passing up the opportunity to train and develop an entire generation of Republican campaign staffers, consultants and campaign workers who have the skills necessary to compete and win in these communities," he said.
That's what GROW Elect is for. Led by Ruben Barrales, who was a deputy assistant to President George W. Bush and headed the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, the organization seeks to identify and support Latino Republican candidates for elected offices, from school board slots to mayoral campaigns. The effort can include everything from recruiting potential candidates to campaign coaching to paying for mailers.
The goal, Barrales said, is to nurture Republican candidates who "can better represent the changing demographics of California" and help burnish the party's image among Latino voters.
"We are growing the next generation of new leaders in the Latino community," Barrales said.
The focus on bolstering Republican outreach to Latinos aside, some delegates endorsed softening the party's stance on immigration. Nehring called immigration a "gateway issue" for many Latinos: Potential supporters are turned away by the party's immigration platform and not interested in listening to its emphasis on other areas, like family values and self-reliance, that Nehring said should resonate.
Maldonado said many Latinos "want people to fight for them to allow their grandpa and their grandma to have the opportunity to become a legal resident."
Much of the debate about immigration reform touches on the families fractured by deportations and paperwork backlogs, and Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, R-Oceanside, said the party needs to focus on that aspect.
"We are a party of values and a party of families, and when we address the immigration issue we will connect with the Latino population," he said.
But ultimately, said Valladares, the state chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, "we're not trying to change the message, more the messaging."
He said one of his priorities as chairman will be expanding the organization's presence in communities from San Diego to Fresno.
"They need to know that there are Latino Republicans and what we're about," Valladares said, "because they have this vision that Republicans are old white guys."
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