WASHINGTON – The Republican Party’s highest-ranking Hispanic official abruptly resigned Friday, marking the latest casualty in the GOP’s internal fight over immigration and dealing another setback to President Bush’s years-long effort to court Hispanic voters.
The announcement by Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida that he was quitting as general chairman of the Republican National Committee came after he had expressed frustration over the tenor of the immigration debate within his party.
“Mel Martinez was a symbol of the party’s outreach to Latinos, and that seems to be disappearing,” said Lionel Sosa, a longtime Republican strategist and adviser to GOP presidents since Ronald Reagan. “It is not a good day for Latino Republicans, that’s for sure.”
The White House had engineered the ascent of the Cuban-born Martinez over the objections of many conservatives as part of an effort to repair the GOP’s image among Hispanics. That image suffered when Republican congressional leaders and conservative activists stymied administration-backed measures that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
Some GOP strategists say the party’s poor performance among Hispanic voters in 2006 helped ensure Democratic victories across the country. Now, some worry that Martinez’s early exit from the RNC foreshadows more trouble in 2008.
Robert de Posada, president of the Republican-leaning Latino Coalition, said Martinez’s departure is especially disheartening because it follows the resignation of another high-profile Hispanic in the GOP: former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
“The message that it sends is Latinos are not welcome,” De Posada said. “The radical conservative base has a temporary victory right now.”
Martinez will keep his job as senator. The RNC will be run by Mike Duncan, who shared the title of chairman and was responsible for the party’s day-to-day operations.