Haley Barbour: Immigration Bill Isn't Going to Change Many Hispanic Voters' Minds

Beth Reinhard

Republican politicians are flipping on immigration reform faster than the time it took 2012 nominee Mitt Romney to alienate Hispanic voters by uttering the words “self-deportation.” Even Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—a onetime proponent of ending birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants—is on board. Earlier this week, the national GOP took the rare step of endorsing a policy change when a Republican National Committee report declared, “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”

So, all congressional Republicans need to do is pass a bill, and then Romney’s dismal 27 percent showing in the Hispanic community will be a distant memory? Probably not. Polling suggests Hispanics are more likely to consider voting for Republicans who favor immigration reform, but it will likely take much more for the GOP to close the deal.

“When a candidate for president says we want to send your grandmama home, this is not very good politics. But I don’t think just passing a good immigration bill is going to change a lot of votes,” said Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi governor who is working with the Bipartisan Policy Center to help Congress reach a deal. “What Republicans have got to do is get serious about aggressively campaigning for the Hispanic vote, and I think you will see a lot more of that this time.”

Not only was Romney on the wrong side of the immigration debate as far as Hispanic voters were concerned, but his Spanish-language advertising was a fraction of that in President Obama's media blitz. If immigration laws are overhauled over the next year, candidates would be able to tout the deal as a rare bipartisan breakthrough in Congress. Hispanic voters make up the fastest growing part of the electorate and, surveys suggest, widely view the Republican Party as out of touch with their concerns. Unlike many Republicans, Hispanic voters favor Obama's health care law and raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

“Candidates all read the election returns from 2012, so they’re all moving to moderate their positions,” said Ed Rendell, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and Pennsylvania governor who has teamed up with Barbour and met with reporters on Wednesday. “If I were running for the Senate, I would want this [immigration] issue decided before the clock ticks to 2014.”

The political calculus may be different for statewide and national contenders than for a congressional candidate. While the electorate grows increasingly diverse, the average Republican district is getting even whiter, according to a new analysis from The Cook Political Report. “A lot of the Republicans in Congress don’t have the same electoral imperative,” Rendell observed.

Recent polling by Latino Decisions suggests what’s at stake for the Republican Party. When Hispanic voters were asked their view of a Republican candidate who helped pass comprehensive immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship, 43 percent of Obama voters said they would be more likely to vote for that Republican.

“Can Republicans really draw more Latino support if they back a path to citizenship? The answer is unequivocally, 'Yes,’ ” writes Matt Barreto, a principal at Latino Decisions and an associate political science professor at the University of Washington. “Or, if they fail to support immigration reform with a path to citizenship, they could do even worse than Mitt Romney's all-time low among Latino voters in 2012.”

When Hispanics were asked if they thought the Republican Party was doing a good job with outreach, 41 percent of Republicans said the GOP was "ignoring or being hostile." And 22 percent of Hispanic Republicans said they would be less likely to support their own party if the GOP blocks immigration reform. “As the debate unfolds in both chambers of Congress,” said Barreto, “Republicans have the most to gain—and lose—among Latino voters on the issue."