WASHINGTON — He launched his presidential campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists and won the Republican nomination on the promise of mass deportations and a huge border wall.
But as Donald Trump, facing overwhelming unpopularity among Hispanic voters, struggles to recalibrate his harsh rhetoric on immigration, many Republicans are already looking beyond November. They are seeking to mend a GOP fractured by an outsider who chucked the party playbook on how to expand its electoral base and win.
“We’ve hit bottom,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican representative from Minnesota who had cochaired Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “We’ve tried the most strident anti-immigration message we can try to rouse the public, and Donald Trump is finally understanding it’s not working. The issue is hurting us badly.”
Trump’s recent vacillation over his signature issue illustrates how tricky immigration is for Republicans. A core element of the party base wants zero tolerance for undocumented immigrants, while the wider US population, including much of the growing Hispanic electorate, would prefer a more humane policy.
Weber said he hopes Trump’s seemingly softer stance will help pave the way politically for other Republican leaders to reassess the party’s approach to immigration. Doing so, he said, is key to winning back Hispanic voters turned off by Trump.
“That will make it easier after his defeat to say, ‘Look, guys, even Trump was trying to back away from it towards the end of his campaign,’ ” Weber said. “The whole Republican approach to immigration ought to be thought of after this election as Operation Fresh Start. It’s essential to the country and to the viability of the Republican Party.’’
The push to hit reset on comprehensive immigration reform might sound like Groundhog Day to close watchers. President George W. Bush, who had the support of a GOP record 40 percent of Hispanic voters, tried it in 2007 and was undercut by members of his own party.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida also advocated for reform as part of a bipartisan coalition and failed, ultimately backing away from the treacherous topic as he campaigned in the Republican presidential primary.
Romney, who had advocated “self-deportation” by immigrants during his 2012 president run, drew just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. (Trump, at the time, had called Romney’s plan “mean spirited” and “crazy.”)
After Romney’s loss to President Obama, Republicans championed comprehensive immigration reform in a 100-page plan to expand the party’s outreach to Hispanic voters, among other demographics. Central to the strategy was getting candidates to shift their tone.
“That’s an important step not just for policy but for the ability to show that we aren’t just a party of old, white men,” said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster whose firm conducted focus groups for the 2012 post-mortem. “It’s absolutely incredible that so much time went into that, and the party nominates a guy who is the antithesis of everything that’s in it.”
Instead, Trump’s rallies, attended mostly by white supporters, are regularly punctuated with chants of “Build the wall! Build the wall!”
In addition to building a border wall — and “making Mexico pay for it” — Trump has championed ending the right to automatic citizenship for anyone born in the United States, cutting off undocumented immigrants’ ability to send money transfers back to their home countries, and deporting all 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.
But even as his first general election ad hits at the perils of an open border, Trump in recent days appeared to be walking back some of his more onerous proposals as he urges Hispanics to consider voting for him.
‘His position is so ill formed, I don’t know that he could state it for himself.’Jon McHenry, Republican pollster, on Donald Trump’s immigration policy
“What do you have to lose?” he now asks both Hispanic as well as black voters.
Trump tested the waters last week with the notion that he might limit deportations to undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes, announcing at a Fox News town hall on border security that “there certainly can be a softening because we’re not looking to hurt people.”
While he continues to oppose a path to citizenship for those illegally here, he acknowledged that it would be tough to throw out law-abiding immigrants who have been living in the country for many years.
He said he would be willing to “work with them” if they pay back taxes — which critics saw as too similar to the positions of his former GOP rivals Rubio and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, positions Trump reviled and mocked during the primary season.
But amid a backlash among some of his anti-immigrant supporters, Trump, during a later interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, appeared to indicate that even law-abiding undocumented immigrants will have to leave the country and reenter to seek legal status.
“That’s part of the problem. His position is so ill formed, I don’t know that he could state it for himself,” McHenry said. “It’s hard to lay out what your vision is if you don’t hold it dearly.”
Trump is expected to flesh out his immigration plan in coming days, having already postponed a speech on the topic in order to meet with more groups, seeking counsel on how best to proceed.
“Part of what he’s doing now is demonstrating that he has a heart while trying to make the same policy objective of securing the country,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican strategist from Mississippi who coauthored the 2012 GOP autopsy. “If he’s going to have an opportunity to win over some percentage of the Hispanic community, they need to know Donald Trump cares about them.”
Javier Palomarez, president of the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t buy any of it. Trump’s latest shift, he and many analysts say, seems designed to appeal more to white college-educated suburban women, another critical swing demographic put off by Trump’s harsh stance, than Hispanic voters.
“Everybody knows it’s disingenuous. You can’t unring that bell,” Palomarez said. “Donald Trump has spent over a year now derailing, denouncing, and denigrating the Hispanic community.”
The chamber sees Trump as such a dangerous presidential prospect that it has endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton, its first endorsement of a presidential general election candidate in the organization’s 38-year history.
Hispanic voters are particularly important because they are the largest growing segment of the electorate, gaining 17 percent in eligible voters since 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. Their growing clout means they could sway the outcome in key swing states such as Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.
And as the makeup of this constituency skews younger than the broader electorate, that trend could endure. Millennials make up almost half of eligible Hispanic voters in 2016, a share greater than any other racial or ethnic group of voters.
Hispanic voters between 18 and 29 years old are also more likely than the general public to prioritize a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants over border security, according to Pew.
“There should be a way for illegal immigrants to get some sort of legal status. We don’t want to get rid of all these people,” said Rey Anthony, a 20-year-old Republican from Miami, a third-generation Cuban-American who says he is resigned to voting for Trump.
Trump is polling dismally among Hispanics, trailing Clinton nationally by 46 points, according to a Fox News Latino poll this month; 66 percent of registered Latinos said they support Clinton, compared to just 20 percent for Trump.
A liberal advocacy group, People for the American Way, just launched bilingual ads targeting Latino voters in Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida to urge them to vote against Trump and any Republican backing him.
Still, some Hispanic Republican leaders who have been critical of Trump’s earlier immigration proposals say they are hopeful that a kinder, gentler Trump could be effective in drawing more Latino support.
“Bravo. I want to see more of it,” said Daniel Garza, executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, a conservative Latino group funded by political donors Charles and David Koch.
Garza noted that Clinton, too, has softened her positions on undocumented immigrants over time.
She had previously opposed making them eligible for driver’s licenses and in 2014 had advocated deporting children fleeing from violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
As senator, Clinton had also voted for the Secure Fence Act, which called for 700 miles of fencing along the Mexican border.
But during the current presidential campaign she has promised not to deport any undocumented immigrants unless they were terrorists or had committed violent crimes.
Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and former chief of the US Office of Citizenship under President George W. Bush, had denounced Trump during the primary. Now, he says that ironically, Trump may be best positioned to make immigration reform happen by bridging the ideological gap on the issue.
Aguilar said he met with Trump’s campaign in recent months about the possibility of allowing undocumented immigrants to register with their consulates instead of being deported, an idea he said Trump appears open to considering.
“All indications are he’s going to pivot,” Aguilar said.
Still, the risk that Trump may lastingly hurt the party has some deeply concerned.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum and a Republican who served as chief economic adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, has criticized Trump’s deportation plan because of its enormous economic cost to the country and harm to the future of his party.
“There’s been damage, there’s no question about it. And it’s been over Trump’s immigration rhetoric,” Holtz-Eakin said. “Everybody needs to recognize that's not the future. It will require a lot of work for Republicans to get past.”