Mitt Romney’s hiring of Republican strategist Ed Gillespie is being seen as a sign the campaign will heavily court Hispanic voters — perhaps at the expense of immigration hard-liners in the party.
Gillespie, a former head of the Republican National Committee, has long advocated an aggressive outreach to the Hispanic community. He helped found the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group that recruits and trains GOP candidates for office and has emphasized finding female and minority candidates. He also heads up Resurgent Republic, an organization focused on messaging to independents, including Hispanic swing voters.
Gillespie has been seen as having a more centrist approach on illegal immigration, even when many in the party wanted to take a hard-line stance on the issue, driving away Hispanic voters in the process.
He was RNC chairman during former President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection, when “Viva Bush” signs popped up across the Southwest and in Florida, and advised the White House during Bush’s push for a comprehensive immigration reform law. He later took on a more prominent role in the Bush White House.
Hispanics make up a large and growing part of the U.S. electorate, and are especially important in swing states in the Southwest, as well as Florida and Virginia.
The RNC is highly aware of this, and on Monday announced it would have state-level Hispanic outreach directors placed in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.
But Romney has a long way to go with Hispanic voters — a March poll from Fox News had President Obama leading Romney among Hispanic voters by 70 percent to 14, a number that, if it holds, all but guarantees Obama’s reelection. Bush received approximately 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, while Arizona Sen. John McCainJohn McCainSenate braces for fallout over Supreme Court fight Republicans seek to lower odds of a shutdown Nunes endures another rough day MORE — the GOP’s 2008 nominee — received 31 percent despite his longtime support of immigration reform, which many strategists say cost him several Western states.
Earlier this year, at the RNC’s annual meeting, Gillespie warned that if the GOP didn’t improve its standing with Hispanics it would be in trouble this election — and for the foreseeable future.
He pointed out that, with the current demographic trends, if Republicans win the same percentage of minorities that McCain did in the last presidential election, they’ll lose the White House by 14 points in 2020.
“We’ll be in a situation where Florida won’t be a swing state — Texas will be a swing state. And that’s a tough row to hoe in the Electoral College,” Gillespie said at the time. “The demographic challenges before us, if we’re not thoughtful as a party and we’re not thoughtful as we talk about policies, will be a real long-term challenge for us as well.”
Establishment members of the party praised Gillespie’s hiring.
“He’s going to be great as a key figure in the Romney campaign,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told The Hill on Monday. “Ed brings a pretty big background in understanding and being an effective communicator in the Hispanic community and that can only be a positive.”
Some signs of a shift in Romney’s tone have already emerged since his status as the presumptive nominee has become stronger.
The former Massachusetts governor warned during a private fundraiser this past weekend that his standing in polls with Hispanics “spells doom for us,” and that to alleviate the problem the GOP needed to offer its own policies to woo Hispanics. His suggestions included a “Republican DREAM Act,” referring to a GOP version of the Democratic plan that would give some illegal immigrants who came here as children a path to citizenship.
While he was not advocating for a specific policy, the comments were a sharp break from Romney’s rhetoric during the primary, when he said he would veto the DREAM Act and attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) for backing a state law that gave illegal immigrants in-state college tuition, calling it a “magnet” for more illegal immigration.
Despite the Romney campaign’s emphasis on a Monday conference call that he “was just discussing ideas that were coming up on the campaign trial,” Romney’s ruminations sounded very similar to recent comments from Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioRepublicans giving Univision the cold shoulder: report Week ahead: Senate panel to vote on Trump's Labor pick Senators introduce new Iran sanctions MORE. The Florida Republican, who is a leading potential vice presidential candidate, suggested a new version of the DREAM Act, which would allow for permanent residency but not provide a path to citizenship.
Gillespie’s hiring is being viewed as a counter to hard-line advisers in the Romney camp, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), who wrote Arizona’s controversial immigration law.
Republican strategists predicted that Gillespie’s gravitas would make him influential within the Romney campaign, outweighing the more-conservative voices on the issue.
“Ed Gillespie has the foresight and influence to guide the Republican Party leadership and also the rank-and-file grassroots activists along the lines of building a larger majority and bringing a lot of people together,” said GOP strategist Leslie Sanchez.
Many Hispanic swing voters, especially second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, are more focused on the economy, but bristle if they feel they’re being intentionally targeted on immigration, said Sanchez. She said Romney needed to lay out his policies soon.
“Romney must soon come forward with a strong, well developed solution and a timeline for immigration reform. The risk in not doing so is it allows others on the left to define it for him,” she said. “The good news is there’s an incredibly receptive, open-minded independent Latino voting bloc that has yet to form a solid opinion about Romney and his solutions to improve the economic strength of our country.”