RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY
BOSTON (USA TODAY) - Immigration legislation is stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and Rep. Steve King of Iowa is in the news for suggesting that most Latino immigrants are drug runners. That's perhaps not the best backdrop for the GOP's emphasis on Hispanic outreach at the Republican National Committee meeting this week.
"Of course it hurts. It hurts," chairman Reince Priebus said Thursday about King's remarks. "Not good.'' The lack of successful immigration legislation, however, should not hurt GOP candidates with Hispanic voters, he says. "It's not the end all, be all," he said, arguing that Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona should get credit for pushing immigration changes in the Senate.
Thursday, the party launched a program to feature "rising stars" among minority and women Republicans, including Marilinda Garcia, a New Hampshire state representative, and T.W. Shannon, speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, who is African American and Native American. The RNC also held an event so the nearly 200 Republicans officials attending the meeting could meet the new field and communication staff hired to reach out to Hispanic, black and Asian voters.
Priebus and other Republican leaders agree that drawing in more Hispanic voters is critical to the party's future. The post-election report commissioned by the GOP after its losses in November calls for greater outreach.
Jennifer Korn, field director for Hispanic outreach, said RNC members are supportive: "There's a huge willingness and open arms to wanting to do this, which is very good, because the party has to buy into this if we're going to be successful. Everybody is just very pleased with how robust our program is.''
Republicans argue that even without passing immigration legislation, their party will improve its results with Hispanic voters just because it is actually trying to reach them.
"It's not like we lost the Hispanic vote, because we weren't trying," Korn said. "There was no effort." Simply showing up is much of the battle, she says: "Identifying the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Hispanic churches, Hispanic organizations, events - and then ensuring that we show up, we participate, we have a booth, we have a speaker, we are communicating our message to the Hispanic community. And most importantly, we are listening."
It's not a new idea: Ronald Reagan joked that Hispanics are Republicans but just don't know it. Priebus says the RNC is putting money and muscle into the effort for the first time: hiring 150 field staffers 18 months before the midterm election. "What's different this time is you can look at the numbers," he said. "That's the difference between what's been done in the past and what we're doing right now."