Until very recently, Phoenix businessman Elias Bermudez was content to wander the desert in search of faces that might bring some color to the overwhelmingly white tent of Republicanism. As an evangelical Republican in mostly Catholic and Democratic Latino Arizona, he was a lone voice in the political wilderness. But the 56-year-old activist and radio DJ took solace in knowing that a political prophet of a previous era, Barry Goldwater, had found success knocking on the rickety doors of the huge ranch houses and shacks dotting the same desert landscape, launching the first commercial radio station in Phoenix–and a grassroots revolution. Bermudez had initially been won over by the GOP because, he says, it backed his efforts to leave the “shadows” of undocumented life and become a citizen, then the first elected mayor of San Luis, Arizona, a border town of about 21,000–89 percent Latino–that he helped incorporate. And like many of the roughly 40 percent of Latinos wooed by Karl Rove and longtime GOP Latino strategy guru Lionel Sosa into voting for George W. Bush in 2004, Bermudez joined the party because it “believed more in family, morality and the ability of the individual to succeed by pulling himself up by his own straps.” He broadcast his beliefs weekly on his popular radio show, Vamos a Platicar (Let’s Talk), where he translated Rove’s and Sosa’s carefully crafted messages about Americano dreams for tens of thousands of potential recruits in the poor, Spanish-dominant sectors of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa.
But then Arizona politicos like Congressman J.D. Hayworth and other GOP legislators began pushing “some of the most hateful legislation in the US,” in Bermudez’s words. (Consider for example Goldwater’s nephew and GOP gubernatorial candidate Don Goldwater, who proposed building a “tent city” where undocumented immigrants would be indentured “as labor in the construction of a wall [along the border] and to clean the areas of the Arizona desert that they’re polluting.”) Bermudez was, he says, “sickened” by the proposals on various state ballots in recent elections–four passed in Arizona–denying basic rights, like bail, to immigrants. These GOP-led initiatives, he believes, embolden those “flag-waving white people yelling at me, ‘You’re no better than a Mexican dog’ and those I see at protests who burn the Mexican flag or wear it as a diaper or on the bottom of their shoes.”
So, rather than go deeper into the tent of Republicanism, Bermudez opted to tear it down.
“I began a campaign to target Republicans,” he said. During the elections, the born-again activist immigrant DJ used media and grassroots organizing methods to help oust anti-immigrant politicos like former TV anchor Hayworth, who was elected as part of the Gingrich revolution in the politically fateful year of 1994.
The roots of the Republican Latino debacle of 2006 lie in the launch of the immigration wars that began with California’s Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that denied education and healthcare to undocumented children. Bermudez’s conversion and the fact that only 29 percent of Latinos voted Republican this past election indicate that the appeals to the lower instincts of the white base come at a steep electoral cost. And in this era of narrow victories and contested results, with black support of the GOP mired near the single digits of the post-Southern Strategy era, securing a significant percentage of the vote of Latinos, the country’s largest minority group, is imperative for the GOP. In the same way that appealing to the desire among some whites to segregate the health, education and basic rights of blacks cost the GOP their votes for decades after Jim Crow, similar appeals to deny health, education and basic human rights to Latino and other immigrants may cost the GOP critical votes in the era of Juan Crow. The effects of such dynamics may be felt even more powerfully in the 2008 elections, in which 12 million new immigrant voters (303,600 in Arizona alone) could participate, according to a study by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. These are especially bad omens for the Republicans when we consider that foreign-born Latinos were largely responsible for the historic increase in Latino support for the GOP engineered in the ’04 elections by Rove and a now glum Sosa.
From his office in San Antonio, Sosa lamented that “even though the President has been extremely vocal about a comprehensive immigration reform package, most Latinos will remember what the [anti-immigrant] Congressional position was–and that can’t be good for the future of a [Republican] party that needs more than just the white vote.”
For his part, Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen sees similar omens in the statistical tea leaves of a country that will be half minority by 2050. “Whites are the only group giving Republicans more than 50 percent of their vote. Even among white women they came in at 50 percent. They’re not only a minority among minorities, but a minority among the majority.”
At a recent Washington gathering of African-American, Latino and other representatives of the newsmedia that serve 51 million nonwhite Americans, Bendixen showed his enthusiastic audience how “the ‘macaca’ vote destroyed the Republicans in Virginia.” The 78 percent of the electorate that is white went disproportionately for Allen, said Bendixen, who added, “That means the 22 percent that is the ethnic electorate defeated Allen.”
Asked about the future of the GOP following an election that witnessed the largest Latino vote in an off year, the passionate Peruvian pollster responded by harking back to what happened in previous immigration wars. “The only historical measure we have is the California experience in 1993-94. The Republicans offended Latinos with their [anti-immigrant] ads, and we saw a very strong reaction there in ’96, ’98 and 2000. It lasted at least three political cycles,” said Bendixen.
In what may portend a 187-ization of the nation, he and other analysts of the Latino electorate believe that this time around the national Republican appeal to the white core may be even more costly for them than it was in 1994. Since then, they say, GOP policies and the activities of the Minutemen and others in the burgeoning industry of anti-immigrant politics have negatively affected the lives of US and foreign-born Latinos and further poisoned the atmosphere. Even Latinos like Bermudez have begun to question whether they want to be members of a party that has so little sympathy for desperate immigrants who die in deserts like the one surrounding the Barry M. Goldwater [military] Range outside Yuma. Leaning his head to the side as if giving a prognosis to a patient in a hospital bed, Bendixen predicted, “This will last at least three election cycles, if not more.” Add to this the long-term legacy of Hurricane Katrina, controversy over the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and continued electoral race-baiting like that in the Harold Ford Jr. “Call me” ad, and the future of the GOP looks very white–and not so bright.
But there’s one important thing that Bendixen and Sosa agree on, something that could alter the fortunes of the GOP: The Latino vote is fluid. “The immigrant vote is a swing vote,” says Bendixen, adding, “The question is, Will Democrats strongly support comprehensive immigration reform? If they don’t, Latinos could turn against them.” Sounding as if he’s getting ready to launch GOP Latino vote campaign 2.0, Sosa concurs with Bendixen, arguing that Latinos won’t necessarily respond to anti-immigrant policies in the same way that blacks responded when the GOP pursued its Southern Strategy by playing to the racial fears of whites. “I don’t believe the damage is irreversible. The Latino vote is still in contention.”
The GOP’s refusal to write off the Latino vote, while giving up blacks for lost, is reflected in the fact that it just elected immigrant Mel Martinez GOP chair while at the same time resurrecting supposedly repentant segregationist Trent Lott (who said this year’s immigration protests “make me mad”) as its minority whip. The fissures over immigration within the Republican coalition will play out in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, as potential candidates cover the pro- and anti-immigrant spectrum between reformer John McCain and Minuteman favorite Tom Tancredo.
But assuming that the Democrats are poised to pounce on Republican racial woes is a critical mistake. Many Latinos still remember that the exponential increase in immigrant deaths in the desert began not with the Minutemen patrols but with Bill Clinton, who launched “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994. A considerable number of Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer’s candidates and recently elected Democrats are hardly experts at microtargeting nonwhites. Harold Ford, the “rising star” who was being considered to chair the Democratic Party before his name was removed from consideration, is both victim and perpetrator of racial scapegoating, as is evident in the Dixiecrat-like anti-immigrant ads he and many of the “pragmatic” and “populist” crop of new Congressmembers ran. And many Latinos will not soon forget that it was Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Emanuel, along with recently elected majority whip Steny Hoyer, who pressured House Democrats to support legislation calling for the construction of the Mexican border wall loathed by Bermudez and millions of other Latinos who marched earlier this year.
While a segment of the Republican Party (and a good number of Democrats, including white liberal and progressive Democrats) still believe in “race neutral” politics, the 2006 elections make strikingly obvious the centrality of race and ethnicity in the politics of a darkening and diversifying United States. For their part, the Republicans must rebuild and color the tent burned down during recent elections. And while the short-term prospects of freshly victorious Democrats look promising among nonwhites, recent electoral history speaks loudly to the volatility of the political and racial moment. As they scour the country for votes in ’08 and beyond, both parties would do well to wander in deserts like those in Arizona in search of their souls.