Driven by some Republicans' sharp attacks on illegal immigration and - as many Hispanics perceived it, immigrants in general - Latino voters fled the GOP en masse in the midterm elections, then turned on John McCain, as well.
He got 31 percent of the Latino vote to the 44 percent that George W. Bush took in 2004, according to exit polls. And it was enough to put much of the West and Southwest out of reach for the Republican Party, to give Florida to the Democrats and to hand Barack Obama the presidency.
Now, as Obama moves to solidify his advantage, Republican leaders are sounding the alarm on what could be the party's most pressing national challenge.
"It's absolutely urgent. The demographics are there in black and white," said former Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), a casualty of the Hispanic swing to the Democratic Party. "If we don't figure out a way to open our party up to more Hispanic voters, nothing else we do will matter. Mathematically, we can't get there from here."
The math is, in fact, simple. Hispanic voters represented 7.4 percent of the electorate in 2008, up from 6 percent in 2004 and 5.4 percent in 2000. And growing Latino populations in the Midwest and the Carolinas stand to give Democrats an edge in a growing number of swing states.
There are stirrings of a Republican response. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has spoken with Hispanic leaders about creating a new organization to back Latino candidates. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has made minority outreach a priority at the RNC. And some Republicans see an opening if Obama continues to defer action on overhauling immigration.
But so far, there are few visible attempts to reverse the trend.
"They're making no overt efforts to appeal to Hispanics again," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, whose new book cites the defection of Hispanics from the Republicans as a central cause of Obama's victory. "They all know it's a problem. They aren't talking about it, because they fear the anti-immigration wing of their party."
"They're afraid to even mention the word ‘Hispanic,'" he said.
The Republican Party's difficulty in clawing back to parity with Hispanic voters is illustrated most clearly in Florida, the heartland of Hispanic Republicanism, where its core is an aging, dwindling Cuban émigré base.
There, the GOP's brightest Hispanic star, Sen. Mel Martinez, is retiring after taking a beating from fellow Republicans during the bitter immigration battles of 2005 and 2006. And moderate Republicans are celebrating the potential of their party's handpicked successor, Gov. Charlie Crist, to broaden Republicans' appeal beyond its conservative base.
But choosing Crist has meant shoving aside former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, the party's brightest young Hispanic star, and Rubio's backers have cast the decision as another blow to the GOP's relationship with Hispanics.
"On one hand, they talk about needing to rebuild bridges with the Hispanic community. But the only thing I've seen from them is that the Senate leadership is basically trying to kick Marco Rubio out of the Senate race in Florida. That, to me, sent a very wrong message to Hispanics," said Ana Navarro, a prominent Miami Republican fundraiser who backs Rubio.
"The only potential new Republican candidate for federal office that we have that is Hispanic and young, they turn their backs on," she said.
"This is one primary race that we don't need," said Danny Vargas, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.
A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Brian Walsh, said that candidate recruitment for 2010 is still under way and noted that Martinez himself had endorsed Crist, in part for his moderate stance on immigration.
But Graham, who said he sympathized with the Senate Republican leadership's decision to back a candidate with a good chance of winning, also raised concerns about the Florida decision.
"The key for our party is to have Hispanic candidates to carry our banner," Graham said. "I don't blame them for trying to make sure we don't lose another seat in Florida. But at the same time, clearly Mr. Rubio is the type of person who would lead our party in Florida and the country to a new level."
Graham said he's considering forming a political action committee, or some other entity, aimed at recruiting strong Hispanic Republican candidates.
"If we can find electable Hispanic candidates, I want to do what I can to create a support system for them, financially and otherwise," he said.
Steele also has emphasized broadening the Republican Party, elevating the RNC's "coalitions" division internally.
"We are really trying to do a better job at meeting people in their lives where they are," said RNC coalitions director Angela Sailor, who noted the Virginia governor's race will be an early test of the outreach program. "We know we've got some mixed messages going on."
The message, Hispanic Republicans say, is key, and the party faces several challenges.
First, it needs to do away with what polls suggest many Hispanics perceive as raw ethnic animus. A post-election survey of Latino voters by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials found that a mere 8 percent believe that the Republican Party has more concern for the Latino community than do the Democrats.
"You had some very high-profile Republicans that were almost anti-Hispanic, not anti-illegal-immigration," said Frank Guerra, a Republican media consultant in Texas who worked for the campaigns of George W. Bush. "Republicans need to be much more welcoming, less incendiary and much more thoughtful."
Beyond that, there's some debate in Hispanic political circles about whether Hispanics can be won over again on an appeal to more conservative cultural and economic values - part of the Bush campaigns' successful push - or whether the GOP needs a new message for that group, as well.
"The clear way to come back is the way we always have: We reach out, and we are there in the community," said Lionel Sosa, a veteran Republican ad man. "We take the vote seriously. We make it a top priority. We know that our Republican, conservative values are in line with the Latino conservative values and that we are all about opportunity, about family and about making sure that the American free enterprise system opens up to take in all the Latino talent."
Others are demanding a change.
"We can't keep running ads of white-haired guys eating a taco next to a piñata," said Florida fundraiser Navarro. "We need ads that have substance."
Navarro pointed to immigration as a central issue on which Republicans must change their tone and could steal a step from Obama, who has not clearly signaled whether he'll fulfill a campaign promise to press for immigration reform in his first year.
"It's symbolic: Do you like us, or do you not?" Navarro said. "It presents a remarkable opportunity for Republicans to call Obama's bluff and say, ‘OK, what do you have to offer on immigration?'"
Alex Castellanos, who was a consultant to Bush and to Mitt Romney, pointed to another potential wedge.
"We have a hell of an issue on equal opportunity in education and school choice with Hispanic voters, with black voters, with suburban voters, with soccer moms," he said. "There are two beautiful kids in Washington whose parents chose the best school for them. Michelle and Barack Obama did the right thing - shouldn't you have equal opportunity to choose the best school for your kids, too?"
The central source of alarm among Hispanic Republicans, however, is the lack of any coherent appeal to Latinos as the midterm, then presidential, elections approach.
"Things have got to be starting now; those conversations have got to be taking place right now," Guerra said. "They can't just swoop in and say a few magic words and put a few ads on the air."
"This is a very dangerous period for the Republican Party because this population is growing so fast, it's on such a trajectory," he said. "So if they lose the next cycle, I don't know how they turn it around in the cycle after that."
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