Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote last fall compared with 27 percent for Romney, the worst showing by a Republican presidential candidate among Latinos since 1996. Latino voters accounted for 10 percent of the electorate and their numbers are growing, particularly in swing states such as Nevada, Colorado and Florida.
That new reality has led the GOP establishment to embrace immigration reform as a way to reintroduce its candidates to Latinos and eliminate a wedge issue before the next presidential race. Some Republicans have formed a super political action committee, called Republicans for Immigration Reform, to provide money and political cover to pro-reform GOP lawmakers.
"A lot of Hispanics don't feel welcome and we need to change that," said Ricardo Aponte, executive director of the Puerto Rico GOP.
The sentiment reflects a shift among Republicans. More than 6 in 10 Americans now favor allowing illegal immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted earlier this month. A slim majority of Republicans â¿¿ 53 percent â¿¿ favor the change, a significant increase from 2010. Seventy-two percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents like the idea.But Republicans who support the changes risk primary challenges and the ire of some conservatives who say an immigration overhaul will take jobs away from citizens at a time of high unemployment. Others say it comes at the expense of other issues like preserving gun rights and taming the federal debt. "Until the borders are secure, I think all this other chatter is a waste of time," said Tea Party Express Chair Amy Kremer. "Conservatives are not happy." Rubio's most conservative supporters are sticking by him â¿¿ for now. Everett Wilkinson, who leads a Florida chapter of the Liberty Federation, said many tea party activists he's spoken with are concerned that the Senate plan could "turn into an amnesty bill" and be "extremely unfair for people who are following the rules." But he expressed confidence that Rubio would jump off if the bill turns into that.