When Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded comments to donors went public, his description of President Obama’s supporters as government dependents who do not pay income tax created an instant furor.
The reaction obscured comments made by Romney during the May 17 fundraiser that addressed his own struggles to appeal to Latino voters.
Romney mentioned his late father, George, who was born in Mexico, and said: “Had he been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot of winning this.”
“But he was unfortunately born to Americans living in Mexico,” he continued. “He lived there for a number of years. I mean, I say that jokingly, it would be helpful to be Latino.”
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The Republican presidential nominee’s joke came with a dire warning: “We’re having a much harder time with Hispanic voters, and if the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African American voting bloc has in the past,” he said, “why, we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.”
Romney’s quip drew some derision, with one group wondering whether a real-life “Mexican Mitt” — as opposed to the Twitter parody account — would have supported Arizona’s “show me your papers” immigration law. And in anticipation of Romney’s appearance on Spanish-language media giant Univision on Wednesday night, MoveOn.org released an ad that takes the candidate to task for suggesting his chance of winning would be enhanced if he was Latino.
“You’ve pledged to kill the Dream Act, you’d enable the police harassment of Latinos in Arizona, and your party is trying to suppress Latino votes,” a woman tells the camera. “But you joke that you want to be one so you can win?”
But some Latino leaders saw in it a hint of a compliment in Romney’s comments — one that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. “When I got into this business, Latinos were not even on the radar. We weren’t even mentioned,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino-focused policy research and advocacy organization. “To me, he’s saying, ‘We’ve got to do something about Latinos. Maybe if I use my Mexican Romney history, that would be good… I wish I was Latino, then I might win.’ I mean, come on.”
Political experts said it is highly implausible the Latino vote would ever decline for Republicans to the level it has for black voters, as Romney appeared to suggest was possible as a worst-case scenario. Even with many Latinos viewing the GOP negatively, most polls still show about one-third plan to vote for Romney — a far higher share than the negligible support he’s getting from blacks.
But in Romney’s note of caution was a cold calculation of the importance of a fast-growing demographic group, particularly in battleground states that could help determine presidential races for years.
It’s a warning that has been voiced by other Republican leaders, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Karl Rove and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who told Spanish-language media giant Univision the GOP could draw Latino voters “if we just stop acting stupid and start focusing on the shared vision that we have.”
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Mike Madrid, a Latino Republican strategist in Sacramento, said the party will be in trouble if it follows the example of GOP leaders in California in the mid-1990s, when the harsh rhetoric and measures they used to combat illegal immigration ended up mobilizing Latinos as a force for the Democrats. He said Arizona is one state where leaders seem bent on treading this path.