Retired Florida Rep., Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

Over the weekend, a group of concerned Republican leaders gathered in Florida to discuss ways in which the GOP can repair their party’s muddied image among Hispanic voters. Participants at the Hispanic Leadership Network’s inaugural conference identified issues such as education, job creation and social values that could re-engage Hispanic voters who have been drifting away from the Republican Party at alarming rates. Other speakers, however, such as former Republican governor Jeb Bush and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, argued that softening the harsh rhetoric on immigration and supporting positive immigration reform could help restore Hispanics voters’ faith. This message runs counter to the plans of immigration hardliners like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who by all reports plans to keep the focus on tough immigration enforcement in the House. And it’s not clear how well this “kinder, gentler” message will play with the nativist movement proposing restrictive enforcement legislation in the states. Unless there’s a hard stop to those strategies, it’s difficult to imagine how Republican can reestablish their party’s line of credit with Hispanic voters.

Speaking on the tone in the immigration debate, retired Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL) urged members to consider the party’s stake in future elections:

The decibels have to be lower. It doesn’t matter how good our policy positions are […] If we become perceived as an anti-immigrant party, America, being a country of immigrants, will never allow us to be the majority party.’

Fred Malek, chairman of the conservative American Action Network (AAN) who sponsored the conference, cautioned Republicans against portraying themselves as the “angry, intolerant and punitive party,” even calling out nativist Tom Tandcredo as a “gadfly” who “infamously dubbed Miami a “third world country.”

But it’s not all about tone and image, argued former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. According to Bush, if Republicans really want to reach Hispanics—who will represent 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2050—they also need to commit to substantive policy initiatives like comprehensive immigration reform, improving education and appointing Latinos to state offices and judgeships:

If you believe in the conservative philosophy as I do it would be incredibly stupid over the long haul to ignore the burgeoning Hispanic vote. They will be the swing voters in the swing states. … So if we want to elect a center-right president of the United States, it seems to me that you should be concerned about places like New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, Texas – places [where], but for the Hispanic vote, elections are won or lost.

None of this sounds like a bad idea—toning down the hateful rhetoric, appointing more Hispanics and talking about comprehensive immigration reform. But can these voices of moderation—none of whom are currently holding political office—dissuade sitting Republican leaders in Congress and state legislatures, many of whom believe they got where they did because of immigrant-bashing? Until the consequences of their actions, such as voting against the DREAM Act or pushing a one-track “border first” strategy, result in the loss of elections, it may be hard to bring Republicans around—even if their own future is at stake.

Photo by republicanconference.