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Ends and Means: GOP Be Aware - The Latino Voting Bloc is on the Rise

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

As Election Year 2010 dawns over Illinois, who can blame Republicans for being enthusiastic — maybe even salivating — over their prospects in November?

After being skunked in statewide elections four years ago — and losing two congressional seats in 2008 — the GOP seems to have good reason to be upbeat, thanks to Rod Blagojevich and the miserable record Democrats have compiled at the reins of state government.

Blagojevich currently is slated to go on trial on public corruption charges this summer, and the proceedings could well last deep into the campaign season, fueling voter anger at Democrats.

Running a close second as a GOP talking point is the state’s abysmal fiscal condition, over which Democrats have presided since 2003. The anticipated general funds shortfall for the coming fiscal year is the largest in state history, and credit-rating agencies have marked the state down to the point where only California is seen as a worse risk.

No easy or painless solutions exist to close the gap. As the folks in charge, Democrats must consider deep budget cuts and stiff tax increases as they try to craft a FY 2011 budget by May 31, or run the risk of a state government meltdown heading toward Election Day.

So why is former Gov. Jim Edgar — arguably the state’s most highly regarded GOP figure — warning his party mates that dark days might lie ahead?

The answer can be found in another major 2010 undertaking, the decennial federal census. The official nose-counting is expected to document what’s been clear to demographers and to Illinois political watchers for some time: The state is becoming more Hispanic and Asian, changes that do not bode well for Republicans.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent population estimate, released last May, underscored the demographic shift. The report showed Illinois gaining more than 480,000 people since the 2000 census, almost 4 percent growth. Looking deeper into the numbers, bureau demographers calculated that the state’s Hispanic population grew 28.5 percent — almost 437,000 — to nearly 2 million, while non-Hispanic Asians increased 28.4 percent, to almost 550,000 individuals, about 122,000 more than in 2000. The numbers for non-Hispanic blacks were virtually unchanged, at almost 1.9 million. Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white population shrank by almost 123,000, to 8.3 million, a 1.4 percent decline.

Why should Republicans be concerned about greater diversity in the Prairie State? Simply put, because voters in burgeoning ethnic communities — particularly Latinos — tend to vote Democratic. Consider exit polling done in November 2008 by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and Univision Radio News, available on the coalition’s Web site, www.icirr.org. Besides the standard questions about issues and candidates, respondents — all foreign-born, naturalized citizens — were asked how favorable they considered the two major parties to immigrants. Seventy-one percent of the 1,255 Latino voters surveyed said they considered the Republican Party not favorable to immigrants, while only 6 percent saw Democrats in the same light. Asian-born citizens were not as harsh on the GOP. Only 46 percent saw Republicans as anti-immigrant, while 5 percent held that opinion about Democrats.

“Our only hope at the state level and nationally to be a viable political party is we gotta attract Hispanic voters,” Edgar says. “If Hispanic voters become as Democratic as African-American voters over the last 70 years, the Republican Party will go the way of the Whigs. Numerically, you can’t give up a huge segment of the electorate like that."

The former governor is “absolutely right,” says Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the immigrant rights coalition. Hispanic and Asian-American voters make up about 9 percent of the Illinois electorate, while African-Americans comprise 13 percent of voters. If statewide Republican hopefuls start with only 10 percent support among those groups — 22 percent of the electorate — they’ve got to find “an awful lot of white moderates” to make up the difference, he noted.

Immigration reform is at the root of GOP difficulties with Hispanics and, to a lesser extent, Asian-American voters, Edgar and Hoyt believe.

Republicans made inroads in courting Hispanic and other immigrant voters during the 1980s and 1990s, Edgar says, but the gains were undone by the tenor of the 2007 immigration debate.

“We were making progress, but that got stopped and put into reverse,” he says, when Republican leaders in the U.S. House took a hard-line, anti-immigrant stance, criminalizing undocumented aliens and helping defeat President Bush’ efforts to provide a path to eventual citizenship for persons in the country illegally.

“A lot of Hispanics took the rhetoric to be offensive, even Hispanics who were citizens,” Edgar says. “They took it personal, thought it was directed at all Hispanics.”

Hoyt believes the harsh rhetoric was a “highly cynical” strategy by GOP congressional leaders seeking a wedge issue to bring concerned whites into the Republican camp.

The plan was “a spectacular failure,” though, and the “absolutely horrible message” caused Republican candidates to “bleed Latino voters,” Hoyt said. In 2004, for example, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry got 60 percent of the Latino vote, including 51 percent of naturalized voters. Four years later, President Barack Obama garnered 67 percent of the Latino vote, including 75 percent of naturalized voters. The GOP likely will have a chance to remake its image before November, though. Immigration reform ranks high on Obama’s legislative agenda, and Congress is likely to take up the issue later this year.

The Republican Party needs to revisit the issue, Edgar said, and GOP candidates must become active in the Hispanic community and show attention to its concerns.

With immigration off the table, Hoyt believes Republicans can compete with Democrats for Latino votes by using bedrock GOP positions on social issues.

But if GOP leaders ignore Edgar and other moderates and allow “the people trying to fan the flames of rancid, racialized populism” to become the voice of the GOP, Hoyt says, the party’s future in Illinois may be bleak.

“If Republicans are permanently defined with the new Latino voter as the party of hate, they’re going to have a hard time in this state.”

 

“Numerically, you can’t give up a huge segment of the electorate like that.” – Former Gov. Jim Edgar

 
 
Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. 

Illinois Issues, Janaury 2010

 

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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