In my continuing quest to identify sane Republicans - as opposed to those who dwell in denial by insisting that the party lost in 2008 only because it was not conservative enough - I nominate Senator Mel Martinez of Florida. He hereby joins the circle of sanity that I created here last Friday, when I named pollster David Winston and Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota as charter members. All three are suggesting that the GOP needs to reinvent itself as an inclusive party, a perspective that might sound wild and crazy to the conservative ideologues, but which nevertheless is the only realistic Republican path to recovery.
Here was Martinez, during a post-election appearance on Meet the Press: "(I)f Republicans don't figure it out and do the math, we're going to be relegated to minority status. I've been preaching this for a long time to my colleagues within my party. I think that the very divisive rhetoric of the immigration debate (in 2006 and 2007) set a very bad tone for our brand as Republicans...The fact of the matter is that Hispanics are going to be a more and more vibrant part of the electorate, and the Republican party had better figure out how to talk to them. We had a very dramatic shift between what President Bush was able to do with Hispanic voters (in 2004), where he won 44 percent of them, and what happened to Senator McCain (who won only 31 percent). Senator McCain did not deserve what he got. He was one of those that valiantly fought, fought for immigration reform, but there were voices within our party, frankly, which they continue with that kind of rhetoric, anti-Hispanic rhetoric, that so much of it was heard, we're going to be relegated to minority status."
Martinez, the first Cuban-American senator, has already been victimized by the GOP's exclusionary ethos. For awhile, in 2007, he served as chairman of the Republican National Committee - until he was compelled to resign, under pressure from conservatives who detested his support for path-to-citizenship immigration reform. But his remarks on Meet the Press were not an attempt to settle an old score; rather, as he said himself, it was all about the inescapable math.
Start with Florida. Four years ago, Bush won Florida handily - with considerable assistance from Hispanic voters, who backed the president by 12 percentage points. But this year, Florida narrowly backed Barack Obama - with considerable assistance from Hispanic voters, who backed the Democrat by 15 percentage points. You don't need to be an MIT graduate to figure out that the Hispanic voters in Florida had abandoned the Republicans by swinging 27 points the other way. This happened for many reasons, starting with the fact that the traditionally pro-Republican Cuban-Americans are no longer monolithically fixated on Fidel Castro; younger Cuban-American voters were open to Obama. And it's demographic reality that Florida's Cuban-Americans no longer dominate the statewide Hispanic electorate; they have been joined by Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, and others who have been turned off by the persistent anti-immigrant rhetoric of the GOP's conservative ideologues.
The Republicans have been on notice about an Hispanic backlash for more than a decade. Back in the mid-'90s, California Republicans adopted tough anti-immigrant rhetoric, and campaigned for a statewide referendum that would deny public services to the children of illegals. The result: Hispanic voters in California - the fastest-growing ethnic group in the electorate - swung heavily to the Democrats, and basically swept the GOP out of power in the state capital. The California Republican party, 12 years later, has yet to recover its former prowess. I spent considerable time in California in 1997, talking with local and start Republican chairmen about the backlash, and they all vowed to mend their ways by becoming more inclusive as a party.
Today, we're hearing the same vows from Republicans who just got hammered by the latest Hispanic backlash. In Virginia - which voted Democratic in a presidential election for the first time in 44 years, thanks in part to a hefty Hispanic turnout that voted 65 percent Democratic - GOP officials have told the conservative Washington Times that they need to send Hispanics a message of "inclusion and involvement," and that they should launch "a rebranding campaign and make sure the truth is really out there, that we're not against immigrants." Perhaps this would have been a good thing to do before the election - when it was already obvious to anyone reading the Census figures that, between 2000 and 2006, the Hispanic population in Virginia had increased by 40 percent.
And the Republicans "very divisive rhetoric" (Martinez's words) turned off the burgeoning Hispanic electorates in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. Those western states were all red in 2004. They are all blue in 2008. It's too simple to say that Hispanics alone swung those states to Obama, but, at the least, their strong Democratic orientation severely narrowed McCain's prospects for victory. Again, the numbers tell the tale. Hispanics were 13 percent of the Colorado electorate (up from only 8 in 2004), and 61 percent of them voted for Obama; Hispanics were 41 percent of the New Mexico electorate (up from 32 in 2004), and 69 percent voted for Obama (up from 56 percent for John Kerry); Hispanics were 15 percent of the Nevada electorate (up from 10 in 2004), and 76 percent voted for Obama (up from 60 percent for Kerry).
Unless the Republicans can truly change their tone, mend their ways, reach beyond their shrinking white southern base, and join the culturally diverse 21st century, they will again be thrwarted by the demographics. America's Hispanic population (which is far younger than the national norm) has increased by 25 percent during the current decade, whereas the overall national growth is roughly six percent. And the Hispanic share of the national electorate has upticked steadily during the last four presidential elections, and this trend that will continue.
I've checked the overall vote totals and the exit polls, and here's the deal: In 1996, roughly 4.8 million Hispanics turned out to vote; in 2000, roughly 7.35 million; in 2004, roughly 9.68 million; in 2008, roughly 11.3 million (and all the '08 votes have not been counted yet).