Jeb Bush could be the GOP's hope for a Latino future.

By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Facing re-election in the midst of a brutal recession in 1994, then-California GOV. Pete Wilson did what so many politicians had done before, do today, and will doubtlessly continue to do in the future:

Rather than take responsibility for any of the problems, Wilson found an issue that most people feared and didn’t understand. And he blamed all of California’s woes on that problem.

The issue was illegal immigration.

“They just keep coming,” Wilson’s TV ads solemnly declared, as video rolled of Latinos being chased through brush.

The ads were clearly appealing to the fear many Californians, particularly white, middle-class Californians, felt during those difficult economic times: growing waves of dark-skinned people were coming to take your job. And “they just keep coming.”

Sound familiar?

Despite outrage — even protests — in the Latino community, Wilson was unbending.

If there’s anything modern political campaigns have taught us, it’s that fear works.

Wilson won re-election by 15 points. And the man who entered the governor’s office as a moderate Republican left it as an icon for hard-line immigration conservatism.

But the Republican Party’s relevance in California was effectively over.

In this midterm election, two-thirds of California Latinos voted Democrat, and led that party to a sweep of state offices. Meg Whitman, a California gubernatorial candidate for whom Wilson made a TV ad about immigration, had 63 percent of the Latino vote go against her.

Nationally, 60 percent of Latinos voted Democrat. In 2006, it was 69 percent.

That’s also the percentage who voted for the Democratic candidate in Nevada, where Sharron Angle played the Wilson illegal immigration card and lost the Latino vote 69 to 27 percent.

The one exception to Latino’s Democratic lean has been Florida, where the Cuban-American vote has traditionally gone Republican. In this pro-Republican election, Florida Republican candidates got about half of the Latino vote.

And if Republican Gov.-elect Rick Scott follows through on his primary pledge to push through a hard-line immigration law such as the one passed in Arizona, things might become even dicier between him and his Latino constituents. Because although many Cubans identify themselves as Republicans, they definitely see themselves as immigrants.

As Wilson and California Republicans found out, the illegal immigration focus can be a winning strategy — in the short term. Long term it could turn lethal in some of the fastest-growing states in the country.

So it’s not surprising that Florida is where Republicans are trying to turn around their dysfunctional relationship with the Latino community.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, with a Mexican wife, Cuban business partners and a degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas, is the party’s marriage counselor.

Perpetual presidential prospect Newt Gingrich is also trying to step into the Latino Republican vacuum. He has started a bilingual webpaper with a conservative tilt and the awkward title, The Americano, which focuses on Latino issues and Hispanic Heritage. Gingrich and the paper have also sponsored a national forum for conservative Latinos.

But the effort seems as forced as Gingrich’s walk-the-fine-line approach to immigration.

Jeb, on the other hand, appears to do and say the right things effortlessly. He either truly understands the Latino perspective. Or someone really savvy is guiding him to be The Republican Alternative of the Future.

Bush seems to understand that Latinos and Republicans could be made for each other.

Free enterprisers? Check.

Religious? Check.

Distrustful of government? Check.

It’d be an almost-perfect marriage — if not for the mistress called immigration.

Bush’s understanding of that could be his ticket to a future Republican presidential run.