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Can the GOP win Latino votes on the economy instead?

Conservative commentators are growing skeptical that Latino voters are worth the trouble, in part because they don’t think they’ll vote for them even if
Oswalo Garcia and other protesters join together in front of the office of Sen. Maro Rubio (R-FL) to keep pressure on him and the others working on immigration reform on June 13, 2013 in Doral, Florida. The group of protesters included DREAMer moms ...
Oswalo Garcia and other protesters join together in front of the office of Sen. Maro Rubio (R-FL) to keep pressure on him and the others working on...

Conservative commentators are growing skeptical that Latino voters are worth the trouble, in part because they don’t think they’ll vote for them even if Congress passes immigration reform. Boosting their case this week is a Latino Decisions poll in which Senator Marco Rubio trails Hillary Clinton by a Romney-esque 66-28 margin in a 2016 matchup, despite his leadership role in passing the Senate's immigration bill.

Tuesday, we took a look at conservatives who argue the GOP needs to go after the white vote harder as a result. There is another, less prominent group of Republican intellectuals, however, who argue that the party needs to appeal to both groups simultaneously even if immigration reform is a bad move. But their proposed cure might strike Republican leaders as worse than the illness.

Here’s the alternate theory: If Latinos demand a government that helps working people, the implication isn’t that Republicans should write them off. It’s that Republicans should help working people.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is one prominent evangelist for this approach, even if he has virtually zero buy-in from Republicans of any stripe. The key to his diagnosis is that both Latinos and poor whites are ditching the GOP for the same reason: stagnant wages, higher costs of living, booming health care expenses, and few Republican policies that address them.

“For all his faults, Bush understood that his party couldn’t win over Hispanics—or any economically-vulnerable constituency—without substantive as well as symbolic overtures,” Douthat wrote in an April post.

Pre-election polls of Latino voters in 2012 showed that immigration lagged far behind economic concerns in their list of priorities. That’s changed since Congress began debating the issue in 2013—the same Latino Decisions poll this week found immigration surging to the top of the issue list—but some Republicans think the old trend might return once the legislative battle is over.

The RNC’s own autopsy of the 2012 election stated that the “perception, revealed in polling, that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party.” But while the same report recommended immigration reform to deal with the GOP’s Hispanic problem, it failed to suggest anything more than rhetorical changes to address the plutocrat problem. Many of the party mega-donors pushing immigration legislation are doing so because they think it will prevent Congress from redistributing their wealth downward. For now the call to override them is mostly limited to a few heretics here and there.

Policy changes from the “tack left on the economy” crowd might include adjusting the tax code to boost family take-home pay at the expense of tax breaks benefiting the wealthy, offering an alternative to Obamacare that would actually subsidize health coverage for the uninsured, and placing a stronger emphasis on education. Some suggest a more populist stand against free trade.

Why can’t Republicans just revamp their economic policies and pass immigration reform at the same time? Skeptics argue legalizing undocumented immigrants over time would add at least some net Democrats, since even the most optimistic strategists think Republicans winning a majority of Hispanics is unlikely in the medium term (keeping them in 60-40 range is the more modest goal). There’s also concern that passing reform wouldn’t actually be the end of the issue. One former GOP Senate leadership aide sympathetic to Douthat’s thesis suggested that Democrats could still run on speeding up the legalization process, especially if Republicans demand a longer list of “triggers” that have to be met along the way.

“Politically, there’s no upside to doing it,” the former aide said.

Ironically, some of the most influential writers among the more conservative anti-immigration crowd also hint at a broad middle class reboot, but that’s usually the point at which talk radio stops listening. Conservative like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh assume immigration reform is a political loser based on polling evidence that Latino voters are too liberal on economic issues to consider voting Republican. They argue that it's easier to improve the party’s performance with disaffected white voters by shifting the party even further to the right instead, but that approach gets harder with every passing election.

In that school of thought, many right wing commentators have latched onto Real Clear Politics analyst Sean Trende’s argument that the GOP failed to turn out about 5 million generally poor white voters in 2012. But while Palin and Limbaugh argue the route to winning them back is even more strident conservatism, Trende writes that the "missing" whites look demographically closer to “Perot voters.” Per Trende:

Perot’s campaign was focused on his fiercely populist stance on economics. He was a deficit hawk, favoring tax hikes on the rich to help balance the budget. He was staunchly opposed to illegal immigration as well as to free trade (and especially the North American Free Trade Agreement). He advocated more spending on education, and even Medicare-for-all. Given the overall demographic and political orientation of these voters, one can see why they would stay home rather than vote for an urban liberal like President Obama or a severely pro-business venture capitalist like Mitt Romney.

Many election observers outside the party, including the New York Times' Nate Silver, think this "compassionate conservatism" is probably the party's best shot at wining back the White House. But, for now, a genuine move to the center in the party’s economic platform has little appeal not only to the establishment, but to the conservative grassroots it seeks to motivate. In 2012, Tea Party activists tended to favor candidates like Herman Cain who would shift the tax burden even more onto the working class than anything Romney proposed.