Republicans had high hopes of eroding President Barack Obama’s dominance among Hispanic voters in 2012 — so great was Latino frustration with Obama’s tough deportation policy and his failure to fulfill the promesa of immigration reform.
Instead, with eight months to go before Election Day, Obama is on pace to match the 67 percent support he got from Latino voters in 2008 — and the GOP may be undoing a decade of work to attract Hispanics, thanks to its election-year rhetorical sprint to the right on immigration, a charge led by front-runner Mitt Romney.
Romney — who needs to bolster his support among tea-party conservatives — hasn’t merely embraced the controversial Alabama and Arizona immigration laws, as most in his party have. He’s sought the advice of the controversial co-author of the bills, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who consults with the campaign as an unpaid adviser and whose endorsement has been touted in conservative primary states such as South Carolina and Arizona.
More important, Romney has publicly espoused Kobach’s polarizing philosophy of “self-deportation,” the idea of making life so inhospitable to illegal immigrants they’ll flee rather than face legal proceedings.
Hispanics, a powerful bloc whose vote could decide the outcome in pivotal states such as Nevada, Florida, Colorado and Arizona, seem to have responded by abandoning Romney, with only 14 percent of Hispanic voters favoring him over Obama in a recent Fox Latino poll — one-third of the Hispanic support George W. Bush enjoyed in 2004.
“In 2008, John McCain paid the price with Latinos for what other Republicans … had said and done,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican Party operative who worked for McCain in 2008 and is a longtime friend who advises Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who remains popular with that state’s large Latino population. “Romney could very well pay an even higher price with Latinos, but it will be for things he’s said and done. The tragic part about it is that he’s done it to win over the very conservatives, and they still [aren’t supporting him].”
One top GOP operative said that number needs to be closer to 33 percent: “We lose Hispanics this bad, we lose the whole election. Period.”
That opinion is growing. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) and other top party brass have made it known to Romney’s campaign that the party risks losing Hispanic voters by a historic margin, creating a downward draft on Senate and House candidates, according to two Hill sources.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has also made clear that the tone of the campaign is political suicide for the party, the sources said.
And a handful of Romney’s own Hispanic supporters, who have always assumed the candidate would tack back to the center after securing the nomination, have expressed similar concerns to top Romney aides, according to a person close to the situation.
In fact, few of the highest-profile Latinos who back Romney support entirely — or even mostly — his stated preferences on immigration. Romney Hispanic steering committee co-chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) not only supports the DREAM Act — which would offer a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrant college students and service members — but also opposes Romney’s call for a border fence. Honorary co-chairman Mel Martinez, a former GOP senator from Florida, co-sponsored the DREAM Act and was a top proponent of a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
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Yet another co-chairman, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), told Yahoo News that Romney’s praise for “self-deportation” in a debate was merely a “bad choice of words” comparable to Obama’s infamous “57 states” gaffe in 2008.
Romney says he’s motivated by the need to address illegal immigration at a federal level, not by 2012 politics. “The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here,” Romney said at a Florida debate last month. He cast the policy as a humane alternative to mass deportation. “We’re not going to round them up.”
The Romney campaign referred POLITICO to Hispanic steering committee co-chairman Jose Fuentes, the former attorney general of Puerto Rico, for comment. He said Latinos aren’t one-issue voters.
“Hispanic immigration is an important issue, but it’s not among the top five issues. The Hispanic voter is more concerned with the economy, small business development, education, health care, just dinner-table issues,” he said. “Immigration is important, but immigration only becomes important when the language being used is offensive, because now we feel like you are offending our people. And Mitt Romney, I think, has expressed himself very clearly on what he wants and has not been offensive to Hispanics, like others may have been.”
He also said Romney’s promise to veto the DREAM Act has been misrepresented and that the latest version of the bill contains a broad path to citizenship for students that many Hispanics don’t support.
Still, Fuentes thinks the campaign would do well to distance itself from Kobach.
“Kobach is a supporter of Mitt Romney, and so am I. Neither of us get paid by the campaign,” Fuentes said. “I don’t think he represents the candidate. … We can understand where he’s coming from, but we don’t necessarily agree with the extreme positions he’s willing to take. And Democrats do a phenomenal job of packaging all that language into a nice little firebomb and blowing it up in the middle of the crowd.”
In a phone interview, Kobach dismissed the Fox poll as an “outlier” and said most Hispanics registered to vote in 2012 support vigorous enforcement of local and federal immigration laws.
“It’s almost a racist argument to say that Latinos favor amnesty and don’t want to see the immigration laws enforced, and it’s been shown in specific instances,” said Kobach, who has informally advised Romney on immigration since 2007, when the former Massachusetts governor called to express admiration for Kobach’s get-tough approach.
“The notion that because someone who speaks a different language … [they don’t] support the rule of law is absurd,” added Kobach, who is pushing for a new Kansas voter ID law to weed out illegal immigrants.
But Romney, Hispanics in both parties argue, could have projected a tough image on immigration without alienating a large majority of Latino voters. They identify three Romney missteps: vowing to veto the DREAM Act if it passes; embracing Kobach’s views so enthusiastically; and taking a swipe at Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina justice and a heroine to Hispanics, in a recent ad against Rick Santorum.
“There’s no nuance with Mitt,” Navarro said. “He’s the kid who can’t eat just one potato chip, he has to eat the whole bag.”
Bob Quasius, founder of Cafe Con Leche Republicans, a Latino GOP group, sees a massive missed opportunity to woo working-class Hispanics battered by the foreclosure crisis and turned off by Obama’s liberal social policies.
“Sixty percent of Latinos are either moderate or conservative, and we’re losing them because of the tone of this immigration debate,” said Quasius, who backs Newt Gingrich — the only top-tier GOP candidate who advocates a more moderate approach. “Mitt’s getting bad advice [from Kobach]. If he’s the nominee, I don’t see us getting any more than 14 percent.”
All of this has obscured Obama’s own, lesser problems with Latinos.
“Will those Latino supporters come out and vote with the intensity they did in 2008?” asked Telemundo’s Jose Diaz-Balart on MSNBC last week. “[Obama] promised the Latino community through Telemundo and other Spanish-language media if he were elected president, within his first year he would bring forth immigration reform. Where is the immigration reform proposal?”
Then there’s the Obama administration’s deportation policy, which has pushed a record 400,000 illegal immigrants back over the border, before a 2011 announcement that new deportations would focus on illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
In December, more than 60 percent of Latinos told pollsters with the Pew Institute they disagreed with the administration’s aggressive handling of deportations, compared with just 27 percent who approved.
But Romney’s swoon has eased the pressure on the president. “We may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim. We won’t even comment on them,” Obama told a gathering of Latino journalists earlier this year. “We’ll just run those in a loop on Univision and Telemundo, and people can make up their own minds.”
It’s no surprise that Kobach’s ascent has been closely followed — with relish — by Obama’s campaign, which had faced a tough path to exceeding his 2008 support in states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and even North Carolina to offset the anticipated loss of white voters.
Kobach has become a well-known name —and not in a good way — to the millions of Spanish speakers tuning into the highest-rated news shown in the country on Univision.
“Frankly, it reveals a lot about someone’s character when they enthusiastically support a law that legalizes the harassment of all Latinos, regardless of their legal status, and codifies ethnic profiling,” said Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “I hope Romney educates himself on the true nature of our immigration problem and does not continue this extreme and divisive rhetoric.”
In a recent interview with Kobach — a Yale Law graduate who seems to genuinely enjoy the give-and-take of the immigration debate — a Univision reporter raised a core objection to the laws: Innocent people can be hassled by law enforcement because they look like illegal immigrants.
“Part of the problem might be that a person like you would have no problem. A person like me may have to prove all the time that we’re here legally,” Luis Megid told Kobach. “And that creates an uncomfortable feeling.”
Kobach is polite but unapologetic. He told POLITICO he opposes profiling and accused opponents of the law of secretly advocating “open borders.”
To Kobach, a Romney administration would mean the implementation of the Arizona and Alabama principles nationwide, which he says might spur the self-deportation of half of the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants by the end of Romney’s first term.
“I have articulated those ideas — I expressed many of these views to the candidate,” Kobach said when asked whether Romney had signed off on that policy. “I don’t want to speak for him, but yes, I think his support of attrition through enforcement speaks for itself.”
Kobach said inspiration for the policy came from personal experience in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, Justice Department run by John Ashcroft. His team created a fingerprinting and monitoring program for Pakistanis in the U.S. and quickly discovered that 15,000 aliens who had overstayed their visas simply melted away, many to Canada or back home.
Asked whether he saw any fundamental difference between the status of Pakistanis, who were monitored for potential connections to terrorism, and Mexicans seeking economic opportunity, he replied: “It’s a distinction, but it’s not a decisive one. It doesn’t change the principle.”
Such comments make some Latino Republicans say Romney won’t be able to repair his relationship with their community until he severs ties with Kobach.
“His presence sends a terrible message,” said Quasius.
“There’s room for Romney to move back to the center by distancing himself from some of these ideas,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a nonpartisan group pushing for an immigration overhaul. “But the question is not only ‘Can he turn it around?’ but ‘Does he want to turn it around?’”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the level of Hispanic support for Obama in 2008. It was 67 percent.