Republican Presidential Candidates Skip Latino Group Conference

WASHINGTON -- GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman were invited to the annual conference of National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino organization in the nation.

All five chose to skip the affair.

The absence isn't highly unexpected considering the crowded schedules that presidential aspirants often face. But in the context of an increasingly frayed relationship between Latino voters and the Republican party, it has provided another clear hint that the GOP sees this ever-expanding constituency group as a lost cause.

"To me, that sets a signal that we're not a priority," said National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguia. "And quite frankly, when you look at the actions that have been occurring by the leaders of the Republican party, it is, I think, alarming for us in the Latino community."

Although Latino voters supported President Barack Obama by large margins in 2008, Murguia stressed that the community is far from politically monolithic. A candidate who simply shows up stands to benefit from those votes that are up for grab in 2012. But so far, no one in the GOP field has made that bare minimum effort. Instead, the Republican presidential candidates -- to the extent that they discuss Latino-related issues at all -- have emphasized their desire for stricter immigration enforcement and tougher immigration laws at the state level.

Those Republicans who read the census data say the current paradigm of tough talk and no outreach is troubling.

"I find it curious that no one decided to go visit or have a conversation today with 25,000 Hispanic activists and leaders gathered from around the country. We can't afford to miss those opportunities. I get the whole thing with La Raza but people are people and we can find common ground," Michael Steele, the former head of the Republican National Committee, told HuffPost, alluding to the organization's presumed affiliation with Democrats.

"If I listened to people tell me, 'Oh, you shouldn't go talk to the NAACP people,' that is just crazy," he continued. "That's not what politics is about. Politics is about the art of engagement."

The Huffington Post reached out to all five campaigns for comment as to why they declined to attend the La Raza event. Campaign spokesmen for Bachmann, Gingrich and Huntsman did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Romney initially said that the former Massachusetts governor never received a request to appear at the conference. When HuffPost produced an email from the Romney campaign cordially declining the invitation, the spokesperson clarified that there had been a scheduling conflict.

The Pawlenty campaign acknowledged they received an invitation, but spokesman Alex Conant said they could not attend due to a scheduling conflict. Of all the candidates invited, however, Pawlenty has perhaps the most wiggle room. He was the only candidate to attend former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Hispanic-outreach summit a few months ago.

Ducking minority forums like the La Raza event is not entirely a new feature of the GOP presidential primary. In 2008, all major candidates skipped a GOP presidential debate hosted by PBS at a historically black college in Baltimore.

What distinguishes 2008 from 2012, however, is that there is a small opening for Republican candidates to draw support away from Obama -- who did speak at the La Raza conference on Monday. Latino voters are losing faith with the president, according to a Gallup poll from earlier this month. Obama's support among Latinos fell from 73 percent in December 2009 to 52 percent in June 2011, a fact pointed out by the Romney campaign in a press release on Monday.

National Council of La Raza is officially non-partisan and does not endorse candidates, but it has been criticized for aligning closely with Democrats on a number of issues. Still, the organization represents a huge -- and growing -- segment of the population. There are 50 million Latinos currently living in the United States, according to census data, and more reach voting age every day.

"It's huge. The writing is on the wall. We have seen the projections -- I think, conservatively speaking, the country will become majority minority within the next five to ten years," Steele said. "The Republican party has to figure out a way to leverage this environment."