By NEIL KING JR.
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Dotted with businesses flashing names such as Las Delicias and El Rey del Pollo, Charlotte’s Central Avenue should be fertile ground for Republicans seeking inroads into the state’s booming Latino community.
Instead, it offers evidence both of the depth of the Republican Party’s challenge with Hispanics and the opportunities that may await if the party can recraft its message.
At Las Delicias, a bakery pungent with the smell of empanadas, 36-year-old owner Manuel Betancur blames President Barack Obama for a weak economy and scant progress on promised immigration reforms.
A few blocks east, Luis Sepulveda, the 70-year-old owner of the El Rey Del Pollo restaurant, rubs his hands on his apron and describes what he likes about the GOP: “They have more respect for life, for family. They are better at running the economy.”
But neither man plans to vote for Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney. Citing the party’s stance on immigration, both harbor reservations about the GOP and what Mr. Sepulveda calls “its hostility toward Hispanics.”
Across this city, in interviews with more than two-dozen Hispanic voters, political leaders and business people, the same ambivalence emerges. Few have unbreakable ties to the Democratic Party, but even fewer are eager to embrace a Republican Party still seen as inimical to Latino interests.
Heavy support from Hispanics helped Mr. Obama eke out a 14,000-vote victory in North Carolina in 2008. Their support will be crucial if Mr. Obama, who accepts his nomination this week in Charlotte, manages to carry the state again. Most state polls show another tight race but Mr. Obama trailing.
Republicans nationally have enjoyed some success in electing Hispanics to higher office. Of the five sitting Hispanic senators and governors, four are Republicans.
Two of those, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, gave high-profile speeches at the Republican National Convention last week in which they talked about their humble beginnings. An impreMedia/Latino Decisions tracking poll showed 30% of Latino voters intending to vote for Mr. Romney after the convention, up from 26% before.
Still, party elders fret that the tough talk by many Republicans on immigration is taking a growing toll on the party’s national ambitions.
“I think Mitt Romney will win in November, even with limited backing from Hispanics,” said former Florida GOP chairman Al Cardenas, a Cuban native who now leads the influential American Conservative Union. “But this could be the last trip Republicans make to the White House unless we widen our appeal to Hispanic voters.”
Hispanics helped power Mr. Obama to victories in 2008 in Colorado, Virginia and Florida, as well as North Carolina. In 2010, as a Republican wave swept away many Democrats in Congress, Hispanic support helped Democratic senators Harry Reid of Nevada and Michael Bennet of Colorado survive. Hispanics look set to play a potentially decisive role in at least six battleground states in November.
It is a political muscle that will grow only stronger. Now numbering more than 50 million, the country’s Hispanic population is projected to approach 80 million by 2030, or around 22% of the population, up from 16% currently. Hispanic voters could soon tip the balance in a number of southern states, most notably Texas and Georgia.
Many Republicans believe they will eventually win over more Hispanics. They cite the decades-old quip from Ronald Reagan, that Hispanics are Republicans at heart; they just didn’t know it yet.
Hispanics have higher marriage rates and church attendance than most Americans. They tend to be strongly antiabortion. They have high rates of entrepreneurship.
Unlike other minorities—African-Americans and Jews, for instance—they have no particular history or tradition that anchors them to the Democratic Party. In most polls, around 40% of Latinos describe themselves as politically conservative.
Yet, when it comes to voting, they are more-Democratic now than when Mr. Reagan predicted they would eventually find a home in the GOP. George W. Bush won around 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004, up from the 34% Mr. Reagan got in 1984. John McCain in 2008 carried less than a third. Mr. Romney’s support has been at 30% or lower in most polls.
The GOP has lost the support even of the Hispanic evangelical movement, almost entirely over differences on immigration.
“For Republicans, the bridge to the Hispanic promised land is the Hispanic faith voter, and that bridge is now broken,” said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a prominent pastor in Sacramento, Calif., who is head of the National Christian Hispanic Leadership Conference. “Republicans look and talk like us, but we’re not sure they want us.”
North Carolina and its biggest city are emblematic of the challenge Republicans face nationally. Drawn first by farm jobs and then by the state’s construction boom, the Hispanic population exploded here over the past 20 years as immigrants from across Latin America poured into the region.
In Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte, the population went from about 6,000 in 1990 to more than 111,000 today. An estimated 830,000 Hispanics now live in the state, more than double the number in 2000. Among those who can vote—roughly a fifth of Hispanics—registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans by more than two-to-one.
Dan Ramirez, a Colombia native and former county commissioner, remains the lone Hispanic ever elected to office in Mecklenburg County. Since switching parties to become a Republican in the late 1990s, he has been pushing his party to reach out more to Hispanics.
“I say it all the time to my fellow Republicans, ‘We need to be more tolerant. We need to be clear that not every Hispanic is an illegal,’ ” he said, sipping coffee at a cafe alongside his wife. “We need to stop pushing people away.”
He and other Hispanic Republicans are quick to tick off the moments that have made their jobs more difficult
They cite Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1994 re-election campaign, with its TV ads that many thought demonized immigrants. They note how Senate Republicans scuttled President George W. Bush’s effort to pass major immigration reform, which would have opened a pathway to citizenship for the millions of Hispanics in the U.S.
More recently, there were the tough immigration laws in Arizona, Alabama and other states. Then came the hard-fought Republican presidential primary, when Mr. Romney spoke out against the Dream Act, which would grant legal status to some young immigrants, and attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry for offering in-state college tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants.
North Carolina has had its own battles on the immigration front.
Rafael Prieto, a national columnist who writes for the local Spanish-language paper, Que Pasa Mi Gente, says the state used to be open to fresh arrivals. “It was like there was a big ‘Welcome’ sign at the border,” he said.
Construction jobs abounded. Non-U.S. residents could get driver’s licenses. The Charlotte police force created an international relations division.
All that has changed. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to a crackdown on immigrants of all nationalities. Rules for driver’s licenses were tightened. Mecklenburg County became one of the toughest in the country in deporting undocumented workers.
The backlash rippled through both parties, but it did so the loudest among Republicans. Rep. Sue Myrick, a former Charlotte mayor, became one of the strongest advocates for stern immigration laws in Congress. She is retiring this year.
Pat McCrory, a Republican who served as mayor from 1995 to 2009, oversaw the biggest boom in the city’s history, a period when Hispanic labor helped build much of the new downtown, including the Bank of America Stadium, where Mr. Obama will accept his party’s nomination. Mr. McCrory welcomed the influx, establishing task forces to help deal with health and housing issues. He was a regular at the city’s many Latino festivals.
By 2008, the mood in the state had shifted. Caught in a nasty governor’s race against Democrat Bev Perdue, Mr. McCrory accused his opponent of “rolling out the red carpet for illegal immigrants” and proposed that all schools and hospitals demand proof of legal residence before providing services. Ms. Purdue, who also accused her opponent of being soft on immigration, went on to win.
A McCrory spokesman said the tenor of the 2008 campaign reflected widespread concerns about the strains of illegal immigration at the time, pressures he says have diminished since then. Mr. McCrory is running for governor again this year.
At Las Delicias, the bakery along Charlotte’s bustling Central Avenue, Mr. Betancur and his wife, Zhenia Martinez, remain wary of where the state is heading.
The immigration crackdown, and the 2008 recession, put a crimp in the family business. They had to close three bakeries, costing Ms. Martinez’s father his retirement savings of $300,000. They have since launched two new businesses: a hair salon and a transport service for people too drunk to drive.
Mr. Betancur, a Colombia native who will vote in November for the first time, has heard Mr. Romney’s pitch that the former private-equity manager is the candidate for entrepreneurs like him. He isn’t convinced.
Mr. Betancur said he remains “very confused” about the coming election. He is leaning toward Mr. Obama, but is far from smitten.
A Romney spokesman, Alberto Martinez, says the campaign has “been working to aggressively go after every Hispanic vote, and its an effort that will only intensify as we get closer to Election Day.”
Charlotte teems with Hispanics who will soon cast their first vote, either after gaining citizenship or by turning 18.
Holding his youngest daughter’s hand after Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 42-year-old Oscar Jaime, a delivery driver for a food-service company, stands on the verge of becoming a citizen after nearly 20 years in the U.S. He, his wife and two of his three daughters will be able to vote for president for the first time in 2016.
For him, politics is personal. “It’s not the party so much as the candidate that matters,” he said, shielding the sun from his eyes. “People always associate Latinos and blacks with Democrats, but that is not automatic with me.”
Still, he is wary of what he sees as Republican efforts to clamp down on undocumented workers, and to squeeze spending on education. He opposes abortion and is no fan of same-sex marriage, concerns that could draw him to the GOP. “But those aren’t issues that are central to my thinking,” he said.
Built a decade ago on a field northwest of downtown, Our Lady of Guadalupe givesall its masses in Spanish. Hundreds of young families, many with three or more children, pack the warehouselike church for every service.
Father Vincent Finnerty, the church’s founding pastor, doesn’t permit politicking in his church but says his parishioners tilt largely Democratic. “They are very socially conservative on issues like abortion, but they have a real fire in them when it comes to discrimination.”
Charlotte businessman Victor Guzman is heading a statewide effort—under the auspices of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly—to broaden the GOP’s appeal to Hispanics in North Carolina. The outreach couldn’t be more basic—talks to business groups, booths at Hispanic festivals and events—much of it done by Mr. Guzman himself.
“It’s an uphill climb, but we have to do it,” Mr. Guzman said. Less than a fifth of the state’s Latino voters are registered as Republicans; Mr. Guzman would like to get that up to around a third over the next decade.
For decades, going back to Richard Nixon, Republicans have worked to woo the country’s Hispanics to their side. There are dozens of organizations—the Hispanic Leadership Network, the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, the Libre Initiative—dedicated to that purpose. The Romney campaign has its own, Juntos Con Romney, or Together With Romney.
So far, conservative Hispanic leaders say, there are scant signs of traction. “I’d give it a B for effort and a D for outcome,” said Mr. Cardenas, head of the American Conservative Union.
Ana Navarro, a Miami-based Republican strategist and friend to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, points to the new wave of prominent Hispanic Republicans elected to higher office, like Sen. Rubio. “We can absolutely compete,” she said. “But we need the right tone, the right message, and the right messengers. At least we now have those messengers in the making.”
A version of this article appeared September 4, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Lost in Translation: GOP Struggles With Hispanics.