The Republican Party is trying to make friends with minorities, but it keeps getting sidetracked by presidential hopefuls who seem to undermine that very effort.
The chairman of the GOP suggested that’s OK; it will figure itself out.
“It’s like going to 31 flavors,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, referencing the old slogan of the ice cream shop Baskin-Robbins. He continued the ice cream analogy: “You can choose whatever flavor you want, and we’ve got plenty of them and that’s what people are going to do right now, and whoever the nominee’s going to be, we’re going to be 100 percent behind them.”
Priebus was speaking outside a Mexican restaurant in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday after a roundtable with about 30 Hispanic business and community leaders. It was one of more than two dozen community-outreach events the Republican Party is hosting during Hispanic Heritage month in battleground states.
It’s all part of an effort to fix the image of the GOP. It was one of the recommendations of the party’s postmortem after the 2012 election — to be more present in minority communities. The party has wanted to avoid the mistakes of past elections, but with controversial comments this year on everything from immigration to whether there should be a Muslim president, the GOP again runs the risk of turning off minority voters.
Priebus argued “tone” is what matters most when trying to win over voters.
“I think it’s like a lot of our mothers have told us,” Priebus said, “it’s not sometimes all what you say, but how you say it.”
It’s a debate Republicans have been having for years — whether it needs to change the product or just the packaging. When it comes to immigration, Priebus said there’s a difference of opinion even among Hispanics on what to do about it.
“It’s just absolutely wrong to make the conclusion that every potential Hispanic voter has one particular opinion about immigration,” he said. “I think, in fact, it is offensive to a lot of Hispanic voters.”
Two-thirds of Hispanic voters in 2014 ranked passing immigration reform soon as “extremely” or “very” important, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
That same study found almost half (46 percent) of Latino voters said a “pathway to citizenship” should be a top priority for dealing with illegal immigration. That’s double the general population of people who said so.
Alfonso Aguilar, who was the chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship under George W. Bush and now serves as executive director of the Latino Partnership at the conservative American Principles Project, told NPR last month that immigration is a “gateway” issue for Latinos.
“It’s an issue you have to get right,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that you have to believe in mass amnesty or a path to citizenship. You just have to show that you’re constructive, that you’re willing to, in an intelligent way, bring people out of the shadows, even if it’s not a special path to citizenship.”
Priebus emphasized that his job is to put the building-blocks in place with minorities.
“If you have an infrastructure that’s set up that isn’t penetrating Hispanic and black communities in America on a full-time basis then you’re just setting yourself up for failure,” Priebus said. “We have to have a Republican Party that gets to a place where we’re putting five or 10 people every 10 blocks in every Hispanic community in America, so that we’re not a party that shows up at the end and says, ‘Hey, what about us?'”
In this campaign, a flashpoint this week was when the surging Ben Carson said Sunday on Meet the Press that he would not be comfortable with a Muslim president. Priebus was asked how he would respond if a Muslim theoretically sought the nomination of his party.
“I just look at the Constitution,” he said. “It’s pretty clear on who can run for president and who can be president, and if you’re 35 or over and you’re a natural-born citizen, and you win over 270 electoral votes in this country, you can be president.”