As Mitt Romney's campaign drags its feet with Hispanic outreach, many Republicans are hoping their nominee will improve his prospects among the nation's fastest-growing voter demographic by adding a strategic running mate to the ticket.
But while pundits have pegged Marco Rubio as Romney's best hope, the real solution may reside well north of Florida.
"Honest to God, the person that has the best credentials on Latino issues is [Ohio Senator] Rob Portman," said one high-profile immigration advocate, requesting anonymity to avoid appearing to boost the Republican ticket. "If you look at his record in Congress, he was for comprehensive immigration reform. The truth is, he would have a lot of credibility."
Portman's record has remained remarkably pro-immigrant over the years even as his party has adopted an increasingly hard line on immigration. In the House, he voted against reporting illegal immigrants who receive hospital treatment, and in favor of granting more immigrant visas for skilled workers. In 2003, the Federation for American Immigration Reform gave Portman a 0 percent rating on the issue — placing him among the most ardent immigrant advocates in Congress. (Five years later, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz would receive the same rating.)
More recently, while campaigning for Senate, Portman — who learned Spanish in college — cut his own Spanish-language campaign ad, focused on the economy. He has also been known to volunteer as an ESL tutor both in Ohio and DC.
These days, his office's rhetoric is a bit more closely aligned with Romney's — praising legal immigration and stressing the need for border security. But it still lacks the "self-deportation" tough talk Romney enlisted throughout the primaries.
"The United States owes its solid foundation to the hard work of generations of legal immigrants," said Portman spokesman Jeff Sadosky. "This means that we should keep the doors of America open to those who come legally and enrich our society and contribute to our economic prosperity while doing a better job of enforcing our laws."
Notably, Portman's record has been much more conciliatory toward illegal immigrants than that of Rubio, who has fiercely opposed amnesty of any sort, and only recently began floating proposals to grant visas — not green cards — to undocumented soldiers and college students.
"I think Republicans are beginning to realize they can't look to Rubio as a knight in shining armor," said the immigration advocate. "If you look at his record, it's just really bad... Romney can't just look for a great brown hope, because there really isn't one."
And while Portman — still unknown by most people, including Hispanics — may not be a silver bullet either, Republican strategist Ana Navarro said in the modern GOP, he may be one Romney's best options.
"He hasn't been a visible leader for immigration reform like McCain was, but he also is not a known anti-immigrant," Navarro said. "And that's pretty good these days."
UPDATE: Portman's office sends along a campaign document from 2010 that reads, in part:
Amnesty, failing to impose sanctions or penalties on immigrants who have entered our country illegally, is the wrong approach and would encourage more illegal entry. It is also unfair to the generations of legal immigrants who have followed the law.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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