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“Soon We Are Going to Have to Start Worrying about Texas and Arizona”: A Conversation with Norm Coleman

After the GOP was trounced by Latino voters on Election Day—a nightmare scenario that sophisticated observers had seen coming for a long time—I called former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, the Chairman of the Board of the center-right American Action Network and its related organization, the Hispanic Leadership Network. I’ve spoken with Coleman about these issues before, and though it has been an important issue to him for a long time, he’s rarely been so emboldened as to criticize his Party’s flawed handling of immigration policy and outreach to Latinos.

Senator Coleman was clear that his Party cannot fix their crisis with Latino voters with cosmetic changes like softer rhetoric, but instead must commit to sweeping reforms of the country’s immigration system. President Obama has said that he wants to tackle immigration reform this term and with some Republicans' recent change of heart, the issue which Rahm Emanuel once called the “third rail of American politics” could become the bi-partisan issue of 2012.

Why did Romney do so badly with Hispanic voters?

Where do I begin? There was a range of things. I could talk about issues. I could talk about outreach. Clearly the Republican Party has a problem with the Latino vote that we have to respond to. Let me give you the good news: Look at Charles Krauthammer this morning. Look at Sean Hannity last night talking about the pathway to citizenship. I’m thrilled that this is being articulated by conservative commentators who know we need to change.

The Party has created a perception, and the campaign didn’t do enough to counter it, that we are the Party that is hostile to Hispanics. That is not the case. Immigration is not the number one issue for Hispanics—the economy and education are—but immigration touches everybody. Everybody knows somebody [for whom] that is a personal issue.

Let me also say this, the President used this issue politically. He had two years with a filibuster proof Senate. He could have introduced a bill, he could have got it passed, and he chose not too.

Was the extraordinary low Latino support a surprise to you?

I wasn’t surprised because I’ve been tracking this with frustration. I was hoping that there were politics afoot when the President didn’t deal with the immigration issue himself, but towards the end of the campaign, he issued an executive order that hasn’t produced much change, but the optics were very powerful.

I’m disappointed, but when make your own bed, you’ve got to sleep in it. The reality is, we haven’t done enough to reach out to the Latino Community. [The American Action Network] has tried. Jeb Bush has played a role, and the leading political voices in America today—Marco Rubio, Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval—the leading Hispanic voices today are Republicans. There are some on the D side, but no Democrat has the platform Marco Rubio has. I wasn’t really surprised [by losing Hispanics], but the margin, when you look at it, is shocking: 71 to 29. When you are looking at less than 30 percent of the vote in the Latino community, that’s a pretty sharp wake-up call. I’m in line with Krauthammer. I don’t think we need two liberal parties. The Latino community is a community that is more open to a conservative message, but was afraid. They may not love Obama, but they were afraid of Romney. They shouldn’t have been. I’m confident he would have done the right thing. But this is a clarion call that we have to [change]. Soon we are going to have to start worrying about Texas and Arizona. Unless we step up, we are going to be the minority party.

Do you think we would have won on Tuesday if Jeb Bush had been the candidate?

I love Jeb Bush, but Mitt was a good candidate. How quickly we forget that he gave the best debate performance that any of us has seen in a lifetime. With regard to the Hispanic issue, the Romney campaign failed to reach out. I think it pushed too far in the primaries into a position that presented a negative view to the Latino community. As much as we tried to correct it, it was not successful. In 2016, Jeb would be the guy I want, but I’m not going back to 2012. Unfortunately, the Bush name still carried some baggage on the most important issue, the economy. Most folks still blame President Bush for the economy more than the guy who has been in control the last few years. In 2016, people may be wistful for good old days pre-Obama.

What do you think the Republican platform on this immigration should be?

I would hope and anticipate that Marco Rubio will get out his version of the Dream Act and get it passed in the Republican House to make it a signature Republican accomplishment. When I was in the Senate [under President Bush], we came close to passing [a comprehensive immigration bill], but Harry Reid pulled the plug. And then there’s the simple debate [about] amnesty. Put it up front. Hardworking folks need to come out of the shadows, and to do that there will need to be a more animated discussion on the issue of a pathway to citizenship. The Party leadership has to be outspoken to make sure that when the Tom Tancredos and their ilk speak up, they don’t speak for the Republican Party. That is not who we are. The Democrats are going to have to put pressure on their side too. The unions have not been supportive of a guest worker program. The Democrats are going to have to put up [real policy] rather than just talk.

The President has said that he plans to tackle immigration reform in the next term, there is clearly a willingness now on the part of Republicans to do this, but will House Republicans obstruct this to deny the President the political victory?

The president promised immigration reform before and didn’t deliver. I hope he does this time. He can’t get it through without the Republican House, so I think there is enough credit for everyone. You could argue that folks don’t want the President to have a political victory, but they can put that aside. The Republican House is going to have to pass this, and the Republicans can put their stamp on it. Looking at the Latino vote in Colorado, a state we thought we could win, has folks understanding that if we don’t fix this, we are going to make ourselves a minority Party for a very long time. I don’t’ think we are a minority Party. I think we are a center-right country. Latinos are center right, but they are sensitive to things like immigration and the Dream Act, which we need to address. The Hispanic Leadership Network has been working on this for two years, the grassroots stuff in New Mexico and in Florida and other places. We are in it for the long haul. Even if you pass immigration reform and the Dream Act, that is still not going to fix the problem. You need a sustained outreach effort. We are committed to that.

There are a lot of conservative members in the House—do you think they’ll be supportive of immigration reform?

When you see Hannity and Krauthammer, two very respected voices on our side of aisle, stepping forward, they reflect what a lot of people are thinking. Is there going to be unanimity? No. We know we need to begin to fix this problem in order to be successful on the national stage in the years to come, and there’s enough of a critical mass being developed that the prospects of getting something done are positive.

I’d encourage [the House leadership] to step forward on immigration without waiting for the President. The President has the bully pulpit. He needs to be engaged, but that doesn’t preclude others from dealing with this issue.

We need Latino voters in the center-right Republican fold to find themselves feeling comfortable in that place. Immigration and the Dream Act may not be the most important issues to Hispanics, but they are the burning issues.

Who will provide leadership in the House?

The House works differently than the Senate, where there are 100 equal voices, a minority, and a majority. In the House, there is the speaker and the leadership. So ultimately it's going to be John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy, and Eric Cantor who have to step forward and figure out how to get this done, and that’s good. You’ve got a Midwesterner, Californian and Jew, and that’s a pretty good combination to figure this out.

Many in the Republican Party have known for a long time that the Latino vote was a serious problem, why did it take them until now to change their tune?

Sometimes reality has to kick you in the head real hard. I think folks underestimated the impact of the Latino vote in critical states like Florida, and Colorado, and Nevada. I don’t think folks saw that until it was too late.

If Romney got as many votes as McCain got, he would have won. This was a very close election. This election was not a rousing testament for big government, but there are some demographic issues that can be addressed without sacrificing conservative principles. You can appeal to Latinos without being advocates of big government, but by making it clear that we are not the Party that wants to deport high school valedictorians in Florida and New Mexico.

Do you think the local Republicans who appear anti-immigrant weaken the brand beyond control of those in Washington?

No. My sense is that if we can deal with the immigration issue [nationally], I think that will go a long way. I think we have a better message on jobs, on choice, on education, and on access to health care. The rhetoric becomes less of a factor if we’ve dealt with [immigration policy] issues.

This issue is demagogued on both sides.  My frustration with the president is that he used this issue but he didn’t deliver on la promesa, the promise he made in 2008 to do immigration reform. He used an executive order [The Dream Act] to help a small number of people to create a wedge.

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