"Drop the Chalupa, Al Gore!"

Republicans are plotting a strategy to court the Latino vote.

By Anthony York
Published November 19, 1999 12:00PM (EST)

Lance Tarrance, a dean of Republican pollsters, splashed cold water on the faces of exultant GOP governors here Friday, sounding an ominous warning about the burgeoning Latino vote and its role in determining the party's future.

"If we continue to get 25 percent of the Hispanic vote, you wait three or four presidential elections, and you'll be out of business," he warned at the Republican Governors' Association meeting. "If you can move it up to 35 percent, you've got a coalition that you can put together and can work. With 40 percent, you wipe the Democrats out."

The cautionary tale is part of a new crusade led by Tarrance, and sponsored by the Republican National Committee, to help build the party's following among the nation's growing Latino vote. RNC spokeswoman Leslie Sanchez said Tarrance is part of a new consortium put together by the RNC to reach out to American Latinos.

"We are conducting the first-ever comprehensive Hispanic political marketing strategy," Sanchez said. "Commercial organizations have been doing this for a decade, and the Democrats have just taken the Hispanic vote for granted."

Sanchez said the new consortium reflects an acknowledgment by Republicans that the Latino vote may ultimately dictate their political future. "This is a serious approach to the short term as well as the longer term," she said. "We want the Hispanic community to know that the Republican Party wants to get to know you better. We know ideologically we share the same views, we just haven't always been the best spokespeople."

Tarrance told the governors that a racial realignment is underway in America, and that Republicans have historically been slow in recognizing such demographic shifts. He cautioned his party that they had missed out on attracting new Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants at the turn of the century, as well as the urbanization of African-Americans, when 50 percent of American blacks moved out of the South. "If we're not careful, we're going to miss it again," he warned.

The new consortium is the national Republican Party's effort to prevent that from happening. Other members of the group include Frank Guerra, who orchestrated the media for Rep. Henry Bonilla, the first Republican Latino elected to Congress from Texas, as well as Latino-focused ads for the Texas Republican Party in 1998. Lionel Sosa, who did media for George W. Bush's reelection bid in 1998, and his wife Kathy are also involved in the new project.

Sanchez said the group is in the process of "laying down the legwork" for their program and plans to unveil a series of television, radio and print ads aimed at Latinos. Sanchez said the RNC has just made a media buy for the first of the group's ads, but would not disclose the size or location of the media buy.

The new ads will be key in securing Republican success in the fall, Sanchez believes, regardless of who the GOP presidential nominee is. "We've come a long way since doing the Macarena," Sanchez said, in reference to Al Gore's performance at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. "I keep wanting to say to Al Gore, 'Drop the Chalupa!' his act is just so tired."

While Republicans have received encouraging news from Bush's success among Texas Latinos in his two campaigns, Tarrance said the party cannot rest on its laurels. "Nine states have 80 percent of the Hispanic vote," Tarrance said, "and those states are key to national political success." In his remarks before the group of governors, he joked, "Hey, who needs California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois anyway?"

Tarrance said the group's new efforts will be key in finding "how simpatico can the Republican agenda be with the Hispanic." He pointed to the "rough road ahead" in California, where Latinos now make up more than 15 percent of the electorate and are voting for Democrats in droves.

Mike Madrid, former political director of the California Republican Party, welcomed the news of the new national group. He said much of his time with the California state party was spent banging his head against the wall, frustrated that the party leadership did not recognize the importance of the state's Latino vote.

"What's ironic is that the Republican establishment has been more open-minded in other states than it has in California," Madrid said, despite his state's huge and important Latino electorate. "The national party understands the significance of what's going on more than the California party does, frankly. It's like it's so close to our nose that we can't see what's going on."

Sanchez said that Republicans in California were hurt by the re-election campaign of Pete Wilson in 1994, and his vocal support of Proposition 187, which would have eliminated benefits for undocumented residents. "Republicans were at fault there. Now the issue is getting different types of leadership."

Tarrance said much of that leadership must come from Republican governors. He said that for the remaking of the party's image to be complete, a governor would have to take the White House, and put "at least eight governors in his cabinet."

He acknowledged that there may be some tensions between Republican governors and the Congressional leadership, but that the governors must take the lead. He likened members of the Republican revolution of 1994, led by Newt Gingrich, to kamikaze pilots who were "instrumental in breaking down some of the walls. But you don't govern with the same group."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

California George W. Bush Immigration Republican Party