Former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno is by his own account an endangered
species: He's a Republican Latino. And when it comes to securing the Hispanic
vote, Fortuno told a crowded lecture hall Monday at the University of
Virginia, the Grand Old Party has it all wrong.
"There's a need for a new tone in the public discourse," Fortuno told professor Larry Sabato's Introduction to American Politics class. "There's no space for a discussion of some of these issues where statements sound exclusive and even insulting at times."
Last year, the economy was growing at a rate of just 1.5 percent, unemployment was soaring among minorities and the workforce population was at its lowest level in 30 years. It should have been a Republican presidential landslide, Fortuno said.
"What actually happened?" Fortuno said. "Mitt Romney received the lowest percentage of the Hispanic vote of any Republican nominee since Watergate."
So how did the party that relied partly on the Hispanic vote to secure 2000 and 2004 presidential election victories lose Hispanics to Democrats in 2008 and again in 2012?
"In an almost 2-to-1 margin, voters in four battleground states [Florida, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico] thought Republicans did not respect the values of Hispanic voters," Fortuno said, quoting from a recent Hispanic Leadership Network poll. "By a 3-to-1 margin, electors think that Republicans care more about helping the rich than anything else."
Still, there is hope, Fortuno said.
That same poll suggested that while only 15 to 26 percent of Hispanic voters in those states identified as Republican, nearly 40 percent would consider voting Republican in 2016.
"This means it's not a done deal. It can be reversed," Fortuno said.
While some in the GOP have suggested relaxing more conservative principles in order to welcome a larger number of Hispanic voters into the fold, Fortuno said the data suggest "the party needs new policies not changing principles."
First and foremost, Fortuno said, a new policy is needed on immigration reform.
That's echoed in recent polls.
Last January, an estimated 31 percent of registered Hispanic voters told Latino Decisions, a Seattle-based polling firm, that they would be more likely to vote for a Republican candidate if the party took the lead on immigration reform.
"Immigration is causing Republicans to leave votes on the table," Stanford University professor Gary Segura, one of the principals of Latino Decisions, told the Los Angeles Times in January.
"Controlling immigration, but promoting immigration, legal immigration, at the same time" will be critical to future GOP success, Fortuno told his audience Monday.
And reforms are already on the table.
Fortuno's appearance at UVa came just two days after the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agreed on a new low-wage visa program, part of a Republican-backed immigration bill currently inching its way through Congress.
Fortuno and other Republicans say the bill will usher in a new era of Republican support as soon as 2014.
Students leaving Monday's lecture were skeptical.
"I think it's more of a long-term thing," second-year foreign affairs major Adam Boothe said. "The Hispanic population is one of rapid growth and the white population is one in decline, but it's one of those things where I think what he said will inevitably be true, but I think it's still a little bit too early."
For third-year student Corinthia Alford, it might not be a matter of securing the entire Hispanic vote by 2013.
Alford said she thinks 2016 is still too early to see policy reform impact the entire voting population, but even small gains are important.
"I think [the Republican Party] is going to have to make some major, necessary change to at least get a higher number of votes and get people into the House and the Congress next year," Alford said.
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