It’s little secret that over the past two election cycles the Republican Party has taken a shellacking amongst Latino voters.
In 2006, exit polls showed 69 percent of Latinos voting for Democratic congressional candidates, and in 2008, they overwhelmingly supported the candidacy of Barack Obama, pulling the lever for him 67 percent of the time.
When president Bush captured 40 percent of the their vote en route to his reelection in 2004, GOP strategists salivated over the prospect of having a legitimate chance to compete for an up-and-coming voting bloc for years to come, proving that the Republican Party and its agenda could attract minority voters in significant numbers and percentages.
But the tumultuous debate over immigration the past few years has left the once promising relationship between the GOP and the emerging constituency in tatters.
The general consensus amongst the Republican base of a security-only fix to the issue of immigration has come to be viewed in some quarters of the Latino electorate as harsh and unsympathetic, and has at times put the GOP on the defensive in the always sticky debate over race and policy.
The passage of Arizona’s controversial immigration law this past spring brought the issue away from the backburner and towards the national spotlight once more, provoking both parties to stake out positions believed to be most politically advantageous in this simmering election year.
But if Republicans are looking for a long-term blueprint for how they can woo Latino voters again, they may have to look no further than the California gubernatorial campaign of Meg Whitman.
Since the conclusion of a contentious Republican primary in June, where she reluctantly had to tack to the right on immigration, the former eBay CEO has engaged in a full-court press of Latino voters.
Her efforts are paying dividends and she may well prove to be a future case study for how the GOP can navigate the rough terrain of the immigration debate.
According to a July Field poll, Whitman now trails Democrat and former two-term governor Jerry Brown by 11 points among Latinos, cutting what was once a nearly a 30 point deficit back in March; the overall race is essentially tied.
Whitman’s gains can be attributed to a strategy that has placated the Republican base by denouncing “amnesty” and endorsing a wide-ranging menu of solutions for securing the border, while avoiding the embrace of more controversial measures and rhetoric that have lead to less than flattering views of the GOP by Latinos, particularly in California.
She skillfully rejected the Arizona immigration law, not on racial grounds, but rather explained that more “effective approaches” to border security could be taken.
Her nuanced positioning enabled her to put sufficient distance between her candidacy and the polarizing measure, proving to Latinos that she was not a run of the mill Republican on immigration, but still demonstrating to her base that she remained committed to securing the border, though by different means.
More recently, Whitman has gone viral in her efforts. Her campaign website now has an entire URL specifically geared towards Latinos and it features Spanish-language ads emphasizing how her campaign will “be one that Latinos will be proud to join.”
And the courtship hasn’t been limited to the web either. It’s been a ubiquitous media blitz that has featured ads on Spanish radio and television and Spanish-language ads on billboards and bus stops across Southern California, which definitively pronounces her rejection of both the Arizona immigration law and the infamous Proposition 187.
Whitman’s inroads with Latinos have clearly rattled the Democratic opposition.
Last week, Jerry Brown was quick to tout the endorsements of over a dozen Latino lawmakers from the Golden State, no doubt a reaction to the dwindling of his once commanding lead.
Standing by their side at a press conference, he characterized his opponents out reach as cynical and disingenuous.
Whitman’s previously tougher language on immigration may still come back to haunt her, and her relationship with former governor Pete Wilson, a man whose name sparks deep resentment amongst Latinos in the state, could prove to be politically problematic down the road.
But for now, straddling the thin line between border security warrior and unconventional Republican is paying off.
Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.