The intolerance turnoff

    Most Hispanics vote Democratic in presidential elections, and the current Republican candidates seem determined to keep it that way.This is a politically stupid strategy, given the clout of Hispanic voters in key swing states; nevertheless, as evidenced yet again on the debate stage Tuesday night, the Republicans just can’t help themselves. They’re apparently hard-wired to insult and alienate the fastest growing cohort of the American electorate.Here they were debating in Nevada – a state that is now 26 percent Hispanic, a state where Hispanics have accounted for nearly half the population growth over the past 10 years, a swing state that backed Barack Obama in 2008 thanks largely to the Hispanic vote – and all the candidates could talk about was the perniciousness of “illegals.”Hispanics are typically repelled by the GOP’s tin-eared emphasis on “illegals” and “border fences.” This has been true for a very long time, and one might think that the Republicans would fathom this by now. Most “legals” view the GOP message as a blanket insult to their ethnicity, as a symptom of the party’s insensitivity and lack of inclusiveness. I know this from experience; nearly 15 years ago, I interviewed dozens of California Hispanics, solid citizens of Orange County, who, by dint of their social mores and work ethic, had been inclined to vote Republican – until the state’s Republican governor started bashing immigrants and touting a referendum to kick the children of “illegals” out of the schools. Result? These solid citizens abandoned the GOP and never looked back. The state’s Hispanic voters surged to the Democrats in ’96, and wiped out the GOP’s state legislative majority. Flash forward to the debate in Nevada. The dialogue was all about who’s the toughest or the softest on “illegals.” Michele Bachmann wants to build not just a fence across the entire southern border, but a “double-walled” fence. Rick Perry prefers electronic surveillance and “lots of boots on the ground.” Mitt Romney said that Perry is weak because Perry has a law that offers Texas college tuition to the offspring of “illegals.” Perry said that Romney is weak because “illegals” mowed the Romney lawn in Massachusetts. And so it went. Romney at one point tried to extricate himself from the scrum – he remarked in passing that “I think every single person here loves legal immigration” – but that line was swiftly subsumed by the hard-right histrionics. Finally, an Hispanic member of the audience felt compelled to rise from his seat and remind the combatants, “We have 50 million Latinos, and not all of us are illegal.”Even Robert Ramirez, a Republican state lawmaker from Colorado, was turned off by the party rhetoric; as he reportedly put it yesterday, “It’s time we became the party of inclusion.” Duh, ya think? Karl Rove has been saying that for years. Smart conservative commentators have seconded the sentiment; as Matthew Continetti told me nearly six years ago, “The optimistic message is pro-Latino and inclusive. The pessimistic message is ‘Build a wall.’ And one thing we know is, optimistic messages win.”Electorally speaking, this should be a no-brainer. Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida have become key states because of their burgeoning Hispanic populations. All four swung to Obama in 2008 in part because Hispanics were turned off to the GOP’s right-wing rhetoric on immigration. And in 2010, an Hispanic voting surge in four western states helped keep the Senate in Democratic hands, salvaging the imperiled candidacies of Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, Michael Bennett, and Patty Murray. Many Hispanic voters, disillusioned about the economy, are potential Republican pickups in 2012 – but they remain hesitant, thanks to the scabrous Republican rhetoric (which includes Herman Cain’s semi-jokes about building an “electrified” border fence, or perhaps a moat filled with alligators). The polls indicate that immigration remains a top-tier Hispanic issue; it’s used as a measurement of a party’s tolerance – or lack thereof.And speaking of intolerance, a new national poll reports that only 22 percent of Hispanics are certain or inclined to vote Republican in the ’12 presidential race. Democrats are no doubt hoping that the Republican candidates stay true to their exclusionary rhetorical instincts for the rest of the debate season.As Sal Mendoza, an Hispanic insurance broker and soured Republican voter in Santa Ana, California, told me way back in 1997, “The Republicans are sitting on gold, but they don’t know how to mine it.”——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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