One challenge facing Republican outreach to Hispanic voters is that the party is not speaking their language—and not just metaphorically.
In an effort to address the communications gap, the House Republican Conference had planned last week to launch GOP En Español, which would translate and distribute Republican reactions to the State of the Union speech in Spanish. But not everyone was on board.
Staffers working for two English-only hardliners in Congress, Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, raised hackles, arguing that the new program sent mixed signals about the importance of English in the United States. In an effort to build consensus, the conference decided to delay the announcement.
“There’s a conflicting message that comes out from the Republicans if we want to recognize the unifying power of English, and meanwhile we send out communications in multiple languages,” King said in an interview with National Journal. “Official business and documents needs to be in English.”
The resistance behind closed doors contrasts with the public posture taken by most Republican Party leaders since seven out of ten Hispanic voters rejected Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, and may give the party more reasons to worry about King’s possible run for the soon-to-be-open Senate seat in Iowa. Already the Karl Rove-backed super PAC has launched the Conservative Victory Project to help quash primary candidates it views as outside the mainstream and destined to lose a general election. Since he is often seen on the fringe of the party, King could be a target if he runs for the seat left vacant by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin.
After inquiries from National Journal about the GOP en Espanol program's postponement, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference, Nate Hodson, denied it was ever in the works. Later, Hodson said the program was limited to a Twitter handle.
King has been an avid advocate in the English-first movement, working for six years to make it the official language of his state, and he is the author of a bill declaring it the official language of the United States. He says that English is “empowering and unifying” and that the GOP En Español program “sends a subliminal message in contradiction.”
Members of U.S. English, an advocacy group fighting to make English the official language of the country, were also invited to week’s meeting. Chairman Mauro Mujica said they were “going to fight this, from the point of view that it’s insane.”
“First and foremost we object that they will be using federal funds,” he said. “Plus, this is just pandering to the Hispanic votes, which is insulting to them. And why Spanish? Why not Korean, or Chinese, or any other language?”
The GOP establishment has largely thrown its weight behind special outreach to Spanish-speaking citizens, acknowledging that the party’s survival depends on a softer touch with the Hispanic community, the fastest growing part of the electorate. Congressional Republican are increasingly calling for immigration reform. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a leading spokesman for an immigration overhaul, is planning to deliver his State of the Union rebuttal in both English and Spanish.
When asked whether he worried that fighting the GOP En Español initiative would damage to the party's efforts to build a broader coalition, King said he did have concerns. But at the end of the day, he said it is less about the language, and more about honing a better message.
“Simply taking a Republican message and interpreting it to another language doesn’t get it out a lot more,” he said. “I don’t think we are good at getting our message out in English, we need to fix that first.”