By Michael O’Brien - 05/12/11 10:00 AM EDT
Republicans have done a “lousy job” of promoting their outreach efforts to Hispanic voters, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Wednesday.
The GOP plans to aggressively woo the powerful voting bloc in the lead-up to the 2012 election, just as President Obama has upped his courtship efforts in recent days.
But that doesn’t mean that Republicans can’t compete for Hispanic votes, he said in a sit-down interview with The Hill in his office at RNC headquarters Wednesday.
“We have had great success in this party with Hispanic candidates and Hispanic voters. We just do a lousy job of talking about it, and I hope to start,” Priebus said. “Over the next couple of years, I want to start a conversation with voters around this country to show that Republicans are the proper home for Hispanic voters.”
Priebus singled out a slew of prominent Hispanic GOP politicians, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.
Obama has pushed the immigration issue into the public eye in recent weeks, holding meetings at the White House with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Hispanic leaders and celebrities to discuss immigration reform. And, on Tuesday, he took his message on the road, jabbing Republicans for their positions on immigration.
The president’s speech in El Paso, Texas, was generally interpreted as more of a move to shore up Hispanic support for his reelection than as an actual push for immigration reform, which faces daunting odds of passing through Congress.
The immigration issue is divisive within the GOP, with some Republicans favoring comprehensive reform and others being more strident critics of U.S. immigration policy. Obama easily won the Hispanic vote in 2008 with 67 percent, though many Latino voters stayed home in the midterm elections.
With the Hispanic population on the rise, independent analysts say Democrats will capitalize in future elections if the party embraces the positions of hard-liners, including former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Priebus declined to criticize any Republican on the issue, saying the party has a big enough tent to accommodate both sides.
“[T]here are differing voices in the Republican Party that portray and speak to different viewpoints on immigration,” he said. “This is America, and there are different folks from different places with different views on all of these issues.”
By and large, the Republican Party has shifted since former President George W. Bush sought to pass comprehensive immigration reform during his second term. That legislation had been seen as a maneuver to win over Hispanic voters, but some Republicans, fearing the bill would grant amnesty for illegal immigrants, voted against it.
Over the last several years, the GOP has focused more on securing the U.S. border and away from guest-worker programs.
“As chairman of this party, my view is until you get to a place where we have serious border security, I don’t think we can get to a place in the debate over comprehensive immigration reform,” Priebus said.
Courting the increasingly important Hispanic vote is just one of the many tough issues facing the affable Priebus, who has been on the job for only four months, succeeding controversial former chairman Michael Steele.
The 39-year-old, a former chairman of Wisconsin’s Republican Party, has decorated his office with memorabilia from the Green Bay Packers — he attended the Packers’ victorious Super Bowl game with Rep. Paul Ryan (R) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R), two close friends and fellow Wisconsinites — and pictures of Republican political luminaries.
His No. 1 priority has been rebuilding the party and helping it recover from its more than $24 million debt. His first quarterly fundraising report of 2011 showed he had knocked that debt down to about $19.7 million.
Priebus is also working to repair the infighting that plagued the final months of Steele’s time in office.
“I think we have to focus in on winning in 2012,” he said, seated under a framed photo of Bush. “Which means we have to create a functional, operational Republican National Committee.”
Priebus is diplomatic when asked about his predecessor, saying he won’t engage in “gossip,” but he also acknowledges just how wide of a chasm separated the RNC from the rest of the party establishment during Steele’s tenure.
“I don’t particularly care to gossip about the past, but I will tell you that I think we’ve done a very nice job here of rebuilding credibility and trust with leadership on the Hill, with our sister committees, with our donor community and all our grassroots activists around the country,” Priebus said.
The RNC chairman said he’s in frequent contact with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as well as other party leaders.
And they’re all united behind McConnell’s top goal of defeating Obama in 2012.
Priebus said the economy will be the No. 1 issue, and downplayed the effect that Osama bin Laden’s killing earlier this month might have on Obama’s reelection prospects.
“If the economy is the issue, which I do believe it will be, there’s no chance this president gets reelected,” he said.
The RNC chairman cast Obama as all sizzle and no steak — a gifted speechmaker, but someone who’s done little to actually lead on the issue of the economy and spending. It is a narrative that Priebus will likely be reciting many times over the next 18 months.
“We need to save our country from an economy that is facing great peril, and a president that is basically in love with the sound of his own voice,” he said. “Obviously this president is tone-deaf when it comes to the debt, the deficit and jobs and the economy. He certainly loves speeches, but he apparently doesn’t like following through on much of anything when it comes to our economy.”
When it comes to the Republican who might be best suited to beat Obama in 2012, Priebus has been deliberately quiet.
He said he won’t make many comments on the crop of GOP hopefuls nor will he speculate on whether he expects a dark-horse candidate to enter the field. And he refused to assess what the various candidates’ weaknesses would be.
Priebus emphasized that he’s been a consistent voice on behalf of Republicans in the media, though he’s been a bit more cautious about his appearances than Steele and his counterpart at the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).
After a string of embarrassing gaffes, Steele ratcheted down his media profile. And Wasserman Schultz is widely seen as a seasoned veteran of cable television battles who’s well suited to represent Obama in the media.
Priebus, with his thick Wisconsin accent, said, “If we’re not advancing an important Republican principle or helping someone getting elected, then we really need to be careful on what the purpose of a media hit is all about.”
Priebus said that the RNC will be engaged in the May 24 special election in New York, saying it is a Republican seat and “confident that it will remain so.”
One of the thorniest issues that is on Priebus’s desk is how to deal with Florida, home of the 2012 Republican convention. Republicans in the Sunshine State have threatened to move up their primary date, triggering outrage from early primary states such as South Carolina.
The situation is “moving in the right direction,” Priebus said, declining to elaborate.