He's warning Republicans that 2012 may be the party's last chance with Latino voters.
C&E: How does the Republican Party improve its outreach to Latino voters?
Martinez: Well, just think about the word party. It can be a political party obviously, but it also means something that’s a celebration. For a celebration, you have to invite more guests. If you stay with only the ones you’ve got, guess what? There’s no way of winning. All of a sudden this feels a lot like 2007 all over again when the Republicans were trying to out-Tancredo [former Rep.] Tom Tancredo on immigration. The only one who said, “No, I’m not going that route” was John McCain. And McCain won the nomination. Republicans need to understand—you cannot win without 40 percent of the Latino vote. You just can’t get into the White House without it and you have to start making an effort early.
Back in 2000, Bush made a huge effort. I remember being at the Iowa straw poll doing Latino outreach for Bush. We shot video and did some interviews to send to some of the smaller Latino stations across the country. We were sending the signal that this guy understands that Latinos are a big part of the future of the country.
C&E: Looking at the Republican field right now, is there a candidate who you think understands that?
Martinez: I think Rick Perry does, but of course I’m from Texas and I worked with him on his 2002 campaign. Just look at what he did during that debate hosted by CNN and the Tea Party. They were criticizing him because he gave in-state tuition to sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants. But he stood up for his decision and he stood by it. The audience there didn’t like it, but Latinos will be listening to that. Fifty percent of the population growth in this country is coming from Latinos. If you want to win the White House you have to be practical and also understand that the future is with those voters. If you don’t talk to them, I just don’t see how you can win. And when you do the numbers, it’s really about common sense. President Obama has not fulfilled a lot of promises that he had for Latinos in 2008, so that vote is up for grabs. But if you alienate them, they’ll just stay home.
C&E: Is immigration reform the greatest impediment for Republicans? Are they playing too much to the base?
Martinez: I worked on Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor in California last year and in the primary she had to go too far to the right. [Her primary opponent] was forcing her in that direction on immigration. But once she won the primary, she was able to bring it back. As soon as the general election started, we did an ad that showed she didn’t agree with the Arizona [immigration] law or Proposition 187, which was very anti-immigrant in California. Then came Nannygate, which wasn’t a good thing.
But I think it’s important to know that Hispanics are not only about immigration. I remember doing focus groups in California and the most important issues were jobs, the economy and education. Immigration was way down there. What really hurts is the undertone of the immigration debate. When you get the anti-immigrant rhetoric, that’s when it strikes a chord in the voter’s mind and they think, “Maybe you really don’t want my support.” Perry comes from a state where he understands that reality and he understands the numbers. It’s more difficult for someone like Michele Bachmann to get that.
C&E: What advice would you give the Republican presidential candidates right now?
Martinez: First and foremost, I would tell them that it’s a mistake to think the immigration issue is the most important issue to all Latinos. But still understand that many of them are looking at what the undertone of the campaign is on immigration. What’s the dialogue like? Even if it’s not their most important issue, they’ll be listening to the rhetoric and the rhetoric can affect the direction they go in. It’s a fine line.
I remember a debate in New Hampshire back in 2007 where a lady was yelling at McCain about immigration—he was getting eaten alive in some of those town hall meetings—and he said to her, “I’m not going to call a soldier fighting in Iraq and tell him I’m going to deport his mother.” That’s how to handle it. Someone needs to do that this time—someone needs to grab these voters and say, “I’m a different type of guy. I understand that you’re part of this country of immigrants.” If you change the conversation and understand that Latinos aren’t just about immigration, but they’re about jobs and education, too, then you might be able to separate yourself from the rest of the candidates that way.