When Republicans assume control of the House in January, Rep. Steve King (R- Iowa) will become chairman of the subcommittee on immigration. His first order of business, he says, will be to pass legislation denying "birthright citizenship" to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. "I think we will have the votes in the House to put an end to the anchor babies in this country," he told the website Newsmax.com.
Set aside, for a moment, the obstacles: Revoking a right enshrined in the Constitution cannot be accomplished by legislation, and besides, such a bill would never get through the Senate. What attacking birthright citizenship could do, however, is consummate the increasing alienation of Latinos from the GOP. And that might be a big mistake, in the long run, for the party.
The Latino share of the national electorate is rising. Since 1998, it has climbed from 3.6% to about 8% today. In California, Latinos make up 22% of the electorate. And Latinos are not, by any means, monolithic Democratic voters. Republican Latino candidates Marco Rubio (senator-elect in Florida), Susana Martinez ( New Mexico's governor-elect) and Brian Sandoval (governor-elect in Nevada) won last week's elections with large numbers of Latino votes. President George W. Bush won reelection with more than a third of Latino votes.
But polling data indicate that immigration is beginning to assume the importance for Latino voters that segregation once had for African Americans; it is a starting point for considering whether to support a candidate, and in many cases a deal-breaker.
Latinos, analysts say, provided a "firewall" for Democrats in Western states running against Republicans who were perceived as anti-immigrant, returning Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to Washington and electing Democratic governors in Colorado and California. Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, whose treatment of her illegal immigrant housekeeper offended many Latino voters, won only 13% of the Latino vote in California. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, by contrast, received 39% in 2006.
Can the GOP win without Latinos? In presidential races, yes, electoral experts say. And in some statewide races it can survive with a small share of the Latino vote as well.
But the Latino share of the vote will continue to grow. The resurgent GOP stands at a fork in the road: It can attempt to turn anti-immigrant rhetoric into public policy, as Rep. King seems determined to do, or its leadership can quash such talk and remain a contender for more than just token Latino votes.