Republicans are in a bit of a pickle: In state-level elections, the GOP is making strides with Hispanic voters. On the national level, however, the party is struggling with Latino voters' increasing affinity for Democratic presidential candidates.
The GOP has seen its share of the Latino vote shrink in the past two presidential elections. George W. Bush, who openly favored immigration reform, won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. That dropped to 31 percent for John McCain in 2008 and just 27 percent in 2012 for Mitt Romney, a candidate who championed "self-deportation." This trend line is considered problematic for a party that needs to win such Latino-heavy swing states as Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada in order to recapture the White House.
"First- and second-generation Hispanics don't arrive as Democrats," said James Aldrete, a political consultant based in Austin, Texas. Moderating their opposition to immigration reform, he said, "is the No. 1 way Republicans can put the Hispanic vote in play."
Anti-immigration rhetoric by the GOP has tended to obscure areas of common ground with Latinos, such as social conservatism, particularly among older-generation Hispanics, and fiscal conservatism among more affluent Hispanics, experts say.
"We know Latinos will vote for Republicans when they are not hostile to them. It's pretty straightforward," said Sylvia Manzano, a principal at the polling firm Latino Decisions.
Melissa R. Michelson, a Menlo College political scientist, agrees.
"If Republicans are talking about immigration or health care or jobs or education in a way that the Hispanic community feels is inclusive," she said, "then they can garner significant Hispanic votes."
What's surprising is that the Republican Party actually fares well with Hispanics in state and local elections. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who's now running for president, did well not only among Cuban-Americans, who have historically leaned Republican due to Cuba policy, but also non-Cuban Hispanics in the state.
Bush "made Hispanic outreach a priority for the Republican Party and for his campaign," said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political scientist. "He ran Spanish-language ads, he talked to Hispanic groups in Spanish, he talked about using conservative principles to improve the lives of regular Hispanic people, and he played up the conservative, social, religious and family issues that appeal to the majority of Hispanics. And of course he advocated a path to legalization for illegal immigrants and talked with empathy about immigrants wanting to improve their lives by coming here."
Meanwhile, Republican Greg Abbott won a respectable 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2014 open-seat gubernatorial race in Texas.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's wife, Cecilia, is the first Hispanic first lady in Texas. (AP/David J. Phillipp)
"The Abbott campaign's playbook with Hispanics highlighted his support for traditional values, the Second Amendment and enhanced funding for public pre-school, in which close to 60 percent of the students are Hispanic," said Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones. "He also noted that his wife Cecilia would be the first Hispanic first lady in the state's history. And he brilliantly featured his mother-in-law in two TV ads, in both English and Spanish, that effectively transmitted the implicit message that Texas Hispanics had no reason to believe that Greg Abbott would not work in the best interests of Hispanics once in office."
And two Hispanic Republican governors were also easily re-elected in 2014 -- Nevada's Brian Sandoval and New Mexico's Susana Martinez. Both received higher-than-normal support from Hispanics, including 47 percent for Sandoval, which was up from 30 percent four years earlier.
But as long as national Republican candidates embrace anti-immigration rhetoric and pursue anti-immigration policies, their success nationally will be limited. The Democrats have something of the opposite problem. They're having success in securing Latino support in presidential races, but this is overshadowing difficulties for the party further down the ballot.
The Democrats trail the GOP in producing Latino "rising stars," notably Sandoval and Martinez, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Rubio is already running for president, and Sandoval and Martinez could be vice presidential prospects or possible future presidential candidates. There is no Latino Democrat of equivalent stature nationally.
There's a bit of irony at play here: Republicans are building a bench of Latino officeholders that's more solid than you'd expect given the GOP's Latino vote share, while Democrats are cleaning up in heavily Latino districts without producing many national stars.