Winning back Latino voters wasn’t a side issue on CPAC’s first day. It was the issue.
Organizers may have purged center-right speakers like Chris Christie from this year’s event, but when it came to immigration it was a whole other world. Panels, speeches, and breakout sessions galore featured Latino or pro-immigration Republicans who warned of impending doom if the party didn’t abandon its usual hardline ways.
It didn’t always go over well. The mere mention, by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, of calls to shift the party’s appeal to the growing Latino demographic drew boos from the crowd. But the overwhelmingly pro-reform schedule reflected deep-seated fears among conservative leaders that population trends could turn the GOP into a minority party for decades if the immigration issue isn’t addressed soon.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most forceful speech on the topic came from a pollster, Whit Ayres, who all but fell to his knees and begged Republicans to pass comprehensive reform.
Ayres’ case should sound familiar by now: 71 percent of Latino voters pulled the lever for President Obama in 2012, according to CNN’s exit polls (other estimates put Obama’s margin even higher), and the Latino share of the electorate is growing rapidly. Unless the GOP changed immediately, Ayres claimed, they faced a disaster of Biblical proportions in which demographically unstoppable liberals would destroy every last vestige of American life that Republicans hold dear. We’re talking “75 percent marginal tax rates,” “entrepreneurs fleeing,” “gagging debt,” a “cradle to grave government.” Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together — mass hysteria!
“If we are going to stop the tide of secular socialism we need more allies!” Ayres said. “We need a lot more allies in a lot of different places! Don’t you think that a group of incredibly family oriented, hardworking, churchgoing, entrepreneurial, spiritual people might be a good place to look for some more allies?”
“Legally!” one heckler interrupted. Ayres ignored him.
“People can wring their hands about it, they can complain about it, they can have angst about it, but the one thing they can’t do is change it,” Ayres said. “That is the America that is coming.”
That is the America that is coming. The following panelists, every one of whom supported some version of reform, reinforced that same message: a bill is on the way and whatever rationalization you need to find to support it, find it now.
Hate unions? Well, then you’ll love a guest worker program because “it’s something big labor is against,” said Jennifer Korn, director of the Hispanic Leadership Network.
Want to deploy a bunch of flying robots along the border? Then reform is a “golden opportunity for us as conservatives to get the enforcement mechanism we need,” according to Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID). And no, Labrador said, we’re not going to hold your hand any more and say if you just change your “tone” and your “rhetoric” everyone will vote Republican: “Let’s stop talking about it, and let’s just get immigration reform done.”
Labrador and Korn were two of a long list of Latino participants on Thursday. There was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), of course, who eschewed immigration in his speech in favor of a heaping plate of red meat on gay marriage, climate science, and abortion. But there were also a variety of lesser known names, including Al Cardenas, who organized CPAC as chair of the American Conservatives Union, and Hector Barreto, the chairman of The Latino Coalition, who was scheduled to talk business policy. There was a separate panel on “conservative inclusion.” And then there was Alfonso Aguilar, director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, who spoke to a small audience about another trap: killing immigration reform then nominating Rubio to try and make up the difference.
“You can’t expect Marco Rubio to win the Latino vote,” Aguilar said. “He can help — having Hispanic faces can help — but in the end Hispanic voters are going to vote for ideas.”
In the front row, watching Aguilar through thick glasses was an older, white man. His name was Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and he was waiting to speak next. Someone on the CPAC scheduling committee must have had a dark sense of humor, because if you had to choose the one person who had hurt the GOP most with Latinos in the last decade, it would probably be Sensenbrenner.
In 2005, just as President Bush and a bipartisan group of senators were working on immigration reform, Sensenbrenner went the opposite direction and authored H.R. 4437, a draconian enforcement-only bill that would have made illegal immigrants felons by default. It would have also criminalized providing support to undocumented immigrants, potentially turning friends, relatives, aid workers, and clergy into felons as well. What became known as “the Sensenbrenner Bill,” passed in the House and the GOP brand has been tied to extreme nativism ever since. Hundreds of thousands of Latinos took to the streets to protest the bill — 500,000 at one rally in Los Angeles alone — and then turned out to vote, helping wipe out the House GOP’s majority in 2006.
Sensenbrenner focused his brief speech at CPAC almost entirely on the sequester fight, but couldn’t help letting slip a reference to immigration officials’ recent decision to “let loose 500 criminal illegal immigrants” who represented a “danger to the people of the United States of America.”
TPM caught up with him after the event and asked what he thought of his fellow CPAC speakers’ claims of impending demographic danger. He wasn’t feeling it.
“Going around saying ‘We’re all for amnesty, vote for us!’ didn’t work for John McCain and it’s not going to work for anybody else,” Sensenbrenner said, adding that “non-citizens can’t vote whether they’re here legally or whether they’re here illegally.” Instead he favored appealing to Hispanic citizens by touting the GOP as the party of “prosperity.”
Aguilar, standing just a few feet away, told TPM he was frustrated by Republicans like Sensenbrenner because he agreed with them on “99 percent of the issues” and believed more like-minded Hispanic voters would follow him to the GOP if they could just get past immigration.
“[Sensenbrenner] was mainly responsible for us losing the House and Senate in 2006, making immigration a wedge issue,” he said. “That’s the beginning of what I call the restrictionist period for the GOP when we started losing Hispanic support. It was this issue.”
The Sensenbrenners of the world are still in Congress and still speaking at CPAC as per usual, but they seem at least somewhat attuned to party leaders’ concerns. That’s why, even as immigration has returned as a top priority in Congress, they’ve mostly kept quiet. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), for example, warned in 2010 that America must restrict immigration because terrorists were plotting to send pregnant women to raise jihadist babies to “destroy our way of life.” But at CPAC, he spoke on a panel on foreign policy and left immigration out of the picture. Mitt Romney, the face of the GOPs most recent struggles, is unlikely to make immigration a focus of his speech here Friday.
For an event that’s still a major gathering for tea party politicians and activists from around the country, the shift in tone and substance could be jarring.
“Let’s be honest, [the schedule] is loaded with amnesty and open border guys,” said former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), who unsuccessfully ran against Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in 2010 for the Republican nomination. “It shows the panic. There’s a misguided notion that you have to panic when in fact you just stick to principles.”
In Hayworth’s case, it’s an especially bitter development. After championing immigration reform under Bush, McCain ran as a border hawk to protect his right flank from a primary challenge. Now safely re-elected, he’s one of the lead negotiators on a bipartisan Senate bill he’s described as similar to his 2007 effort. But Hayworth hasn’t given up hope that the restrictionist cause will rise again.
“Mark Twain said history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes,” he said. “The switchboards are going to melt down. Marco Rubio is going to be fricasseed if he thinks he’s going to finesse this issue.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.