(CNSNews.com) - The immigration issue could destroy Republicans' chances in future elections, according to liberal activists gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss Latino politics. But a Republican strategist said the GOP should instead worry about losing conservative support over the issue.
Simon Rosenburg, president of the New Democratic Network, argued that the Hispanic vote, long coveted as a crucial demographic by politicians from both parties, was becoming dependently Democrat - a swing that could devastate the GOP as a long-term, electorally viable party.
"It's my belief that the Republicans are handing the Democrats the presidency with the way that they're handling the immigration debate," Rosenburg said.
According to data compiled by the NDN, the Hispanic population currently makes up 15 percent of the United States population, a figure estimated to reach 25 percent by 2050. It is a demographic that is by no means politically monolithic, in Rosenburg's view.
"[The Hispanic vote] is a swing vote, an up for grabs vote," he said. "It leans Democrat, but it's not entrenched on the Democratic side."
According to the Pew Research Center, Republicans in 2004 captured 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. A five-point increase over the 2000 election, the bump was seen as an important factor in President Bush's reelection.
"[Winning the Latino vote] was a source of immense pride and accomplishment on the Republican side," said Rosenburg.
But NDN data suggests that Hispanic sentiments towards the GOP began to shift during the 2006 election campaign.
According to an NDN poll, Hispanic voters became increasingly concerned about immigration, an issue that had rarely come up in the past. Asked to identify the most important issue facing the Hispanic community, 52 percent of respondents said either immigration or discrimination.
While the Republican Party never took a hard-line position on the issue, many individual congressmen began running television ads denouncing illegal immigrants. According to Rosenburg, Republican commercials comparing immigrants to terrorists were broadcast in 25 states.
In the 2006 election, the Hispanic vote went 69 percent Democrat and 30 percent Republican - a 10 percent loss for the GOP since 2004. Hispanic turnout also increased by 33 percent in 2006.
"The result was a complete reversal of all the gains the Republicans had made; a dramatic boomerang back on the Republicans," Rosenburg said.
He credited President Bush and political advisors Karl Rove and Matthew Dowd for efforts to increase Republican support among Latinos but said that strategy was being undermined by conservatives furious at the idea of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
It was dangerous politics, he said, in a time when America is swinging Hispanic, western, and exurban.
"The Republicans cannot win the presidential election in 2008 without [the southwest and Florida]," he said. "These heavily Hispanic parts of the country are slipping away from them because of what's happening with the immigration debate."
Republican political strategist Craig Shirley called Rosenburg's analysis "astonishing revisionism" and said the idea that the GOP's fortunes hinged on the Hispanic vote was "utter and complete nonsense."
"The Hispanic vote is less of a concern than the conservative base," he told Cybercast News Service . "In fact, if you look at the polling of the immigrants who are here legally, they are even more overwhelmingly opposed to amnesty than people who are born in the United States."
Shirley dismissed the idea that Republicans had suffered in the 2006 election because of opposition to illegal immigration, noting that Bush did well with Hispanics in 2000 and 2004 without campaigning for amnesty.
"Hispanics tend to be much more conservative on cultural and social issues like church, abortion, prayer in schools, etc," Shirley said. "So if they voted for [Bush], it's for those reasons."
Shirley warned that the GOP should be worried about losing the conservative vote.
"Karl Rove's goal of remaking the Republican Party has been achieved and now the party is a marriage between big government and big business with no room left for Reagan conservative populists," he said.
In 2006, Shirley noted, many conservatives cast protest votes for libertarian or even Democratic candidates.
In Ohio, 25 percent of self-identified conservatives voted for Democrat Sherrod Brown over incumbent Republican Mike DeWine, he said. In Pennsylvania, 20 percent of conservatives voted for Democrat Bob Casey over incumbent Rick Santorum.
Conrad Burns and Jim Talent, incumbent senators from Montana and Missouri respectively, lost because many conservatives voted libertarian, he said.
"Conservatives have stuck with Bush, because at the end of the day, conservatives are patriots and they're loyal to their government, especially during times of crisis like September 11," he said. "So security issues became the glue that held things together and allowed the Republicans to get away with a great deal."
"But immigration was the straw that broke the camel's back," he added.
According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 32 percent of Republicans disapprove of the job Bush is doing, an 11 percent increase since April.
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