Immigration reform is a start

On Dec. 5, 1933, right after dinner bells rang across the country, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a proclamation that ended Prohibition and solidified the vast majority of Catholic votes for the Democratic Party for 40 years. 

The first time Catholics voted overwhelmingly Democratic was in 1884, when a spokesman for a group of New York preachers, a guy named Samuel Burchard, condemned Grover Cleveland for being from a party that represented “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” That little statement energized German and Irish Catholics to swing the vote against James Blaine, giving a close election to Cleveland. 

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In 1928, Republicans doubled down on the anti-Catholic strategy, running against Al Smith and his ties to the church, as well as his public ambivalence and private support for repealing Prohibition. It worked for Herbert Hoover, but backfired badly four years later. Roosevelt sealed the deal by repealing Prohibition.

It would take more than four decades for Catholics to start coming around to the Republican Party in large numbers, and that largely happened because of the radicalization of the Democratic Party, especially on issues like abortion. 

Today, Catholics vote almost in equal numbers for both parties, and how they swing usually swings elections. Unfortunately for Republicans, they are losing one of the fastest growing blocks of those voters – Hispanics — and they are losing Hispanic voters for the same reasons they lost the larger Catholic vote throughout most of the 20th century: bad messaging, bad messengers and bad policies. 

Republican leaders understand the numbers problem they face with the increasing disaffection of a growing voting bloc, and they know they must change those dynamics. Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, made the point in his recently released autopsy of what happened to the GOP in the last election. 

Passing comprehensive immigration reform is not going to suddenly change the voting dynamics for Hispanic voters, but it is a necessary first step. 

Some Republicans strongly disagree with this approach. They believe that making more Hispanics American citizens will give the Democratic Party more voters. In the short term that might be correct, especially if the Republican Party continues to use the “Burchard” strategy of appealing to this new generation of potential voters — in other words, insulting them. 

The Republican Party has to take the long view when it comes to appealing to the Hispanic voting bloc. This is more than just launching a Spanish-language website or finding more Spanish speakers among party leaders. It has to stop efforts to disenfranchise new voters. If the first thing that Hispanic voters hear from the Republican Party is that they don’t want them to vote in the coming election, those folks will vote for Democrats. 

On economic policy, Republicans have a vested interested in making this voting block more prosperous. As has happened with Irish and Italian Catholics, the better Hispanic voters do economically, the more likely they will be to vote Republican. That means working on regulatory, tax, education and other pro-growth policies that will specifically help Hispanics succeeded economically. That means focusing on the second and third generation of Hispanic immigrants who still need help getting into the economic mainstream. 

Republicans should also stress policies that keep families together. More than 200,000 Hispanic children are put in foster care today because of government policies that have illegal immigrants in detention facilities. Breaking up families is terrible public policy, and it turns out to be really bad for Republicans in the long term. 

Republicans need to understand that the cultural conservatism of many Hispanic voters is tied to these bigger economic issues. Yes, they are pro-life, but they are also worried about their families being deported and about getting a job that pays them a fair wage. Republicans have to offer a pathway to greater assimilation, greater personal security and the hope for a bigger part of the economic pie.

Immigration reform is just the beginning. Hopefully, it won’t take 40 years. 

Feehery is president of Quinn 
Gillespie Communications and 
spent 15 years working in the 
House Republican leadership. He is 
a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com.