MIAMI (AP) — A Republican group that includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday kicks off its efforts to improve the party’s outreach to Hispanic voters, many of whom have criticized Republicans for using harsh rhetoric to attack illegal immigration.
The new Hispanic Action Network convenes for a two-day policy conference starting Thursday evening that will feature several high-ranking Republicans and focus on issues such as trade, immigration, media outreach and education.
The group is among a growing number of Republican organizations reaching out to Hispanics in advance of next year’s presidential election.
Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, whose American Action Network funneled more than $30 million in campaign funds to Republicans in about 30 congressional races last year, is backing the new group’s efforts.
With the Latino population growing in swing states such as Nevada, Colorado and Florida, Republicans need to chip away at Hispanics’ overall 2-1 preference for Democrats to have any hope of capturing the presidency.
Democrats are confident their party’s efforts on health care, education and the economy will appeal to Hispanic voters, whom they believe have been turned off by some of the GOP tactics.
But Bush and other Republicans have long maintained their party is a natural fit for Hispanics, particularly recent immigrants. They cite the party’s social conservatism, anti-abortion stance and support for private school vouchers and lower taxes. Voters last year elected Latino Republicans to prominent posts, including Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
Bush, who met his Mexican-born wife Columba when he taught English in her homeland, said the party needs to become more engaged in the Hispanic community — and not just during election years.
“It’s about more than running ads in the Spanish-language media,” said Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish. “It’s also about showing people you want them to be part of the effort, putting in the time even when people aren’t looking…it means using rhetoric that doesn’t turn people off.”
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a possible 2010 presidential candidate, announced a similar effort in Washington, D.C., last month with his Americanos group. The conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, also now has a Spanish Web site, Libertad.org. Meanwhile, Alfonso Aguilar, former President George W. Bush’s first citizenship and immigration czar, now runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
The former president, who is Jeb Bush’s brother, had a stronger and more successful Hispanic outreach program than almost any other national Republican.
Jeb Bush told The Associated Press on Tuesday “the more the merrier” as far as outreach programs go. Unlike Gingrich, he says, he has ruled out running for president in 2012.
As for potential Republican candidates for president in 2012, only former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is scheduled to speak at the conference.
But Republican groups have their work cut out for them following an election year in which Republican Senate candidate Sharon Angle of Nevada ran ads portraying illegal immigrants as thuggish gang members, and Hispanic voters overwhelmingly sided with Sen. Michael Bennet against Republican Ken Buck, a former county prosecutor who had tried to deport more illegal immigrants by seizing income-tax returns from accountants that catered to Spanish speakers. The plan was later thrown out by a court.
The House Republican leadership took a symbolic step toward bridging the gap with Latinos last week in bypassing Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa as the next chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration. King once suggested on the House floor that an electrified border fence would stop illegal immigrants, likening it to the practice used to corral livestock.
“Obviously there was a message sent with Steve King not being selected for chair,” Aguilar said. “But now the question is beyond ending harsh rhetoric: Will they actively propose a conservative proposal that goes beyond border control and domestic enforcement to a temporary work status.”
As president, George W. Bush unsuccessfully pushed for sweeping immigration reform. But so far, the only new Republican proposal on immigration has come from a group of state lawmakers who are hoping for a Supreme Court ruling that would end the granting of automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.
Simon Rosenberg, head of the liberal-leaning NDN organization, applauded the efforts of Republicans such as Jeb Bush to reach Latinos.
“It would be bad for the Latino community to only have one political party working with them,” he said.
But Rosenberg questioned the notion that Hispanics have more in common with conservatives than Democrats, noting that many Hispanics lack health insurance and will benefit from the Democrats’ recent health care overhaul.
He said the GOP needs more than improved outreach.
“There is a reactionary strain in the Republican Party that is angry about how the country is changing,” he added, referring to the effects of immigration. “We are moving toward a majority nonwhite country. That is very difficult for some people to accept. And those people tend to be more Republican.”
Bush and Gingrich support comprehensive immigration reform, but GOP leadership must still satisfy those who want to focus solely on border security, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who backs legislation modeled on Arizona’s law that requires immigrants to carry papers proving they are in the country legally and police officers to check the status of anyone they believe is in the country illegally. A judge has placed those provisions on hold pending hearings on their constitutionality.
Scott will be among the keynote speakers Thursday night at the conference in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. Others include the co-chair, former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, as well as Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
Coleman said he’s proud of the diverse perspectives the conference will offer and hopes it leads to serious debate.
“So much of immigration is about tone,” he said. Coleman added that Florida’s Rubio and New Mexico’s Martinez talk about immigration and border security “but in a tone that is helpful and respectful.”
But neither Rubio nor Martinez will be at the conference, nor will newly elected Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, another Hispanic GOP star. Coleman said both Sandoval and Martinez have just begun their jobs and couldn’t get away. A spokesman for Rubio said the senator would be working on official business outside of South Florida but declined to provide details.
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