Republicans are looking to bolster their ranks of female and minority elected officials after the party struggled to attract those voters during last November's election.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez have been tapped by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) to help recruit candidates from diverse backgrounds, especially Hispanics, to run at the state level with the hopes they one day could serve as standard-bearers for the party.
The effort -- titled the Future Majority Caucus -- is spearheaded by veteran Republican operative Ed Gillespie, who most recently served as a senior adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. A ten-person committee of state legislators will help identify candidates to run for state level office, train them, and help raise cash to back their campaigns, Gillespie said on a conference call Wednesday.
Gillespie has long stressed the need for the GOP to improve its standing with Latino voters in order to be competitive in future elections. Gillespie began the RSLC's efforts to recruit minority candidates in 2011, but the Republican Party as a whole, including Romney, suffered among non-white voters in 2012. Now the strategist is looking to enhance his recruitment program.
Gillespie said that the 2012 election, in which President Barack Obama won more than seven in ten Latino voters and 55 percent of women voters, was a wake up call for Republicans.
"We as a party have to do better in increasing our percentage of the minority vote and among female voters," he said. "We have been a little behind the curve."
Gillespie admitted that the GOP hasn't "worked hard enough" to appeal to women and non-white voters in the past, but argued that it's in the nation's best interest to change that.
"As an American, it's not in the country's interest for one party to take a segment of voters for granted and for another to write them off," he said.
The revamped effort comes against the backdrop of the debate over immigration reform in Congress, which has split Republican lawmakers. Some Republicans have endorsed a plan that would grant a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. But others oppose it, having long dismissed it as "amnesty."
Politically, immigration was an issue that dogged Republicans among Latino voters during the 2012 election. Romney vocally opposed any reform that contained a pathway to citizenship and backed enforcement policies designed to drive undocumented immigrants to "self-deport."
The strident tone on immigration adopted by many Republicans tarnished the party's image among many Latino voters. That perception also hurt the GOP at the state level. That's clear when you look at the RSLC's efforts, which produced 125 Latino candidates to run for state office and spent $5 million supporting their campaigns. Yet, Republicans only made a net gain of one Hispanic state elected official in 2012.
How the GOP handles the immigration debate in Congress this year could again reverberate in the 2014 elections. Martinez applauded Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for his efforts in producing a bipartisan immigration reform plan in the Senate that contains a path to citizenship.
"Not a single issue will define any party. The issue of immigration should not be the one thing that defines the Republican Party. But the system is broken," she said. "We have to do it together with Democrats."
Gillespie and Martinez both stressed that Hispanic voters are not single-issue immigration voters, saying that the party must earn their trust on issues like education and the economy as well. Martinez herself has sparked controversy with her effort to revoke a state law that provided driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.
But addressing immigration reform that includes some type of relief for the undocumented population at the federal level could "make clear that we welcome people into this country who come here legally," Gillespie said.
Republicans have actually done a good job of churning out prominent Latino elected officials during the past several elections. In addition to Rubio, Sandoval, and Martinez, the GOP now can boast more Hispanic senators than Democrats thanks to the election of Ted Cruz in Texas. Several Hispanic congressmen such as Raúl Labrador (Idaho) have also made their mark. But that hasn't changed their difficulty in appealing to Latino voters.
Martinez, the first Latina governor in the nation's history, insisted that continuing those efforts could eventually breed greater success in attracting minority voters. RSLC officials would not say their targets for recruitment or fundraising for the 2014 election cycle.
"The way for the party to grow again is to elect more Hispanics and more women at the local level," she said.
Hispanic voters, she said, can see through "insincere candidates" whose tone is "not respectful."
"If we are careful about our tone and really listen," she said, "I think the Republicans will do a much better job of recruiting good candidates."