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How GOP can attract Latino voters

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 10:29 AM EST, Sat November 10, 2012
On Tuesday, about 11 million Latinos voted. According to exit polls, President Obama got 71% of their votes.
On Tuesday, about 11 million Latinos voted. According to exit polls, President Obama got 71% of their votes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On Tuesday, President Obama received 71% of the Latino vote, says Ruben Navarrette
  • The Republicans got exactly what they deserved, he says
  • Republicans can either make peace or march toward extinction, he says
  • GOP must learn to talk about immigration as an economic, not a cultural, issue, he says

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

San Diego (CNN) -- On Election Day, Latinos stood up to the Republican Party that has tormented them for years and said: "No mas!"

They gave the GOP, in state after state, a merciless beating and helped re-elect President Obama. They also sparked a family feud within the party -- about where to go from here.

Convinced that Democrats have a record with Latinos that isn't much better, and that Obama -- because of his immigration enforcement record -- didn't deserve their support any more than Mitt Romney did, I advised Latinos to skip the line and vote for every office on the ballot except the one at the top.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Instead, about 11 million Latinos voted for president. According to exit polls, Obama got 71% of the Latino vote, compared with just 27% for Romney. And they delivered three critical battleground states -- Colorado, Florida and Nevada.

Although both parties need to be taught a lesson, I'll settle for half a loaf. The Democrats got some votes they didn't deserve, but the Republicans got exactly what they deserved.

Opinion: GOP voter suppression fueled black turnout

It's a punishment that was a long time coming. It was in 1994, after California voters approved Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to deny services to illegal immigrant, that Republicans learned that they could scare up votes and win elections by tapping into fear over changing demographics and offering shelter to racists and nativists who were anti-Latino.

More recently, it was Republicans who gave us those do-it-yourself immigration laws in states like Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina that require local police to enforce federal immigration laws and make likely the ethnic profiling of Latinos. And, finally, it is Republicans who, when they're running for president, compete to see who can be toughest on illegal immigrants.

Latinos watch all these dramas play out. They take notes. And they don't forget.

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Demographics raise red flags for GOP
Colorado immigrant casts his first vote

And, in more bad news for the GOP, this is no small tribe we're talking about. With Latinos making up 16% of the U.S. population and projected to reach 30% by 2050, and with Latinos now representing 10% of the U.S. electorate and adding 2 million more voters in every presidential election, Republicans can either make peace or march toward extinction.

Politics: What the election teaches us about ourselves

Personally, I hope they choose the former. Democrats have it too easy with Latinos, and Republicans have it too hard. And, the result is that these voters don't get good service from either.

But you can't fix something until you know why it's broken. Republicans aren't sure. After Romney's defeat, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh scoffed at the idea that the only way for the GOP to have a shot with Hispanics is to turn itself inside out and embrace a full amnesty for illegal immigrants.

In fact, Limbaugh's fellow radio talker Sean Hannity and conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer both say that they now support that view.

Yet Limbaugh isn't sold. Backtracking on immigration would only backfire on the GOP, he argued on his radio show, by leading conservatives to desert the party.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. When it comes to Latinos, Limbaugh knows nada. Worse, he jumped to all the wrong conclusions. He insists that the real reason that Latinos vote for Democrats isn't because of immigration but because they like government handouts and don't want to work hard.

Latinos don't want to work hard? Is he kidding?

My Take: 7 ways religious diversity played in the election

Besides, I thought the nativist complaint du jour was that Latino immigrants take jobs from U.S. citizens. How do they do that while standing in a welfare line?

Here are three things that help explain where Republicans went wrong with Latino voters to begin with. And following that, here are three things that they can do right to start making amends and live to fight another day.

What Republicans do wrong:

-- They pander to racists and nativists. At the very least, they remain silent when extremists in their party go off the rails by comparing illegal immigrants to dogs, insects or pigs. All of which has been done by Republican elected officials.

-- They fall into what has been the familiar pattern in this country of portraying immigrants, illegal and legal, as inferior, defective, dishonest or predatory. One popular narrative is the one advanced by Limbaugh: immigrants as takers.

-- And they don't ask for advice or take it when it's offered. Republican Latino consultants report being turned away by the Romney campaign, which either didn't care about getting Latino votes or were confident they could do it without any help.

What Republicans could do right:

-- They need to learn to talk about immigration as an economic issue and not a cultural one, and channel their anger and frustration over a broken system at the system itself and not at desperate human beings who come here for a better life.

Opinion: Both parties must lead on immigration

-- They need to support and help advance the careers of the GOP's current crop of Hispanic rock stars: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Senator-elect Ted Cruz, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

-- And they need to turn the tables and put the other party on the defensive on those issues, such as education reform and expanding trade in Latin America, where Republicans are more in sync with Latinos than Democrats are.

Or they could do nothing. They could write off Latino votes and declare that things are fine the way they are. They could remain rigid in their thinking, and declare that a small tent is roomy enough. They don't have to change. They don't have to seek out Latinos; they can just wait for Latinos to come to them.

That seems to have been the Republicans' strategy in this election. How'd that work out?

Politics: The new American electorate has arrived

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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