The Latino Vote Is Ripe for a Rich GOP Harvest


It's a Friday morning in San Diego, and inside the War Memorial Auditorium, this week's batch of about 150 immigrants will be sworn in as new Americans. Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, R-Calif., and his volunteers are ready: As part of the congressman's outreach, his people are outside greeting the arriving citizens-to-be, urging them to register Republican.

It seems to be paying off. The new Americans are becoming Republican at a 4-1 clip, and the effort to cut into traditional Democratic bases bore fruit last fall when conservative GOP challenger Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., ousted incumbent Democrat Jim Bates by fewer than 1,600 votes in a heavily ethnic district.

The president's son, Jeb Bush, recorded even more impressive gains in Florida. As the chairman of the Dade County Republican Party from 1984 to 1987, he virtually doubled the number of registered Republicans there. This effort bore fruit when Ileana Ros-Lehtinen became the first Cuban-American elected to Congress -- again taking a formerly Democratic seat.

For a long time, Republicans ignored the Latino community, believing that they could not compete with ethnic Democratic politics. But the efforts by Jeb Bush and Mr. Hunter prove that Latinos are just as responsive to Republican principles of freedom and opportunity as other Americans, if they are asked.

Linda Chavez, a former Reagan appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, notes that "the Democrats want to treat all peoples as groups, as permanently disadvantaged minorities, [which] gives them the chance to use government spending to keep their votes."

But that approach ignores the differences between and within minority communities. During the Reagan-Bush decade, Latinos scored impressive gains: The number of Latino-owned businesses doubled, their income increased by about a fifth and their unemployment rate dropped from 13.8 percent in 1982 to 8 percent in 1989.

Maybe this is why Latinos give the president such top marks these days. Well before the successful war with Iraq, they were giving him a higher approval rating than whites or blacks, according to a poll taken by Voter Research and Surveys -- even though half of the respondents said that they were Democrats.

The victory in the Persian Gulf has seen these already high marks skyrocket, with Univision and La Opinion (America's No. 1 Spanish-language TV station and daily newspaper, respectively) reporting it at 81 percent.

"We don't have to tell these people about the American dream; that's why they're here," says Mr. Hunter, a normally Jack Kemp-style Republican who was in the odd position of opposing the president's request for fast-track negotiations on a free-trade agreement with Mexico. Mr. Hunter admits that this brought him some heat from his Latino friends.

Opposition to the fast-track request created a much more serious problem for Democrats in Congress. Among Latinos, it is becoming evident that the voters come second with the Democratic Party, after special-interest groups. This was clear in the free trade debate, given how the AFL-CIO made it such an issue, with some not-so-subtle references to Mexicans as "stealing" jobs from Americans.

Add to this the Democrats' growing distance from Latinos on social issues -- Latino-Americans are among the most socially conservative and family-oriented people in the United States -- and the Republicans have their opportunity.

Already some of this is showing up in the voting booth. Pete Wilson captured the California governorship with 47 percent of the Latino vote, and Jim Edgar took Illinois with 40 percent.

The fault lines should continue to emerge as President Bush gains ground not with token appointments but with a commitment to issues of strong appeal to Latinos, such as the war on drugs and Housing Secretary Kemp's emphasis on home ownership. Whatever their opinions on the free-trade issue, moreover, most Latino Americans are well aware of the dignity with which Mr. Bush has received his courageous Mexican counterpart, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

With what President Bush has going for him, and the success of the free-trade agreement, the Republican Party has its best chance ever to recruit a new generation of Latino Americans.

We Americans of Hispanic heritage are proud peoples from many different cultures, and the recent arrivals among us probably understand America's freedom better than many born here. By reaching out past the established institutions (which may have an interest in seeing Latinos treated as a minority), Republicans may find that they are setting the stage for not only a new era of world prosperity but also for a realignment of the tired political assumptions of the past.

Roxana Chahin is director of Latin American Affairs for the International Freedom Foundation in Washington. She wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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