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Republicans tout Hispanic outreach, but focus on Obamacare

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) addresses delegates during the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) addresses delegates during the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N

By Gabriel Debenedetti

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A year after a party review urged Republicans to embrace immigration reform to attract Hispanic voters and boost support, the party finds itself banking on the unpopularity of Obamacare for success in November's congressional elections.

Republican leaders insist they have made progress reaching out to Hispanics, who helped propel President Barack Obama and other Democrats to victory in the 2012 election.

That effort has been complicated, however, by the refusal of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to take up comprehensive immigration reform legislation that many think could help swing Hispanics towards the party.

As campaigning heats up for the November elections, Republicans now see public disaffection with Obamacare, along with the president's low approval numbers, as their key to keeping control of the House and retaking the Senate from Democrats.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus voiced confidence on Tuesday that voter displeasure with Obamacare would make 2014 a "tsunami-type election."

Republicans tend to do better in midterm elections, when voters are traditionally older and whiter, than in years with presidential elections, when Democratic-leaning minorities and young people turn out to vote in greater numbers.

Republican leaders believe they are expanding their electoral map by fielding potentially competitive candidates for such Democratic Senate seats as Colorado and New Hampshire. Concerned Democrats are urging big-money donors to contribute to this year's campaign, instead of looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election.

Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz brushed off Republican predictions of big wins in November.

"I really hope that my counterpart remains bullish and believes Democrats are in the dumps," said Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic representative from Florida. "They were predicting up to hours before the polls closed on election day in 2012 that we would be inaugurating President Mitt Romney, too. So their prediction accuracy isn't exactly on the mark as of late."

MINORITY OUTREACH

Priebus said Republicans had made great strides on some recommendations from its 2013 Growth and Opportunity Project, dubbed the "autopsy" report on the party's outlook following their 2012 defeat in the presidential race. Those efforts include spending tens of millions of dollars on efforts to catch up to Democrats on voter data and technology programs.

Priebus acknowledged the party had work to do on addressing the immigration issue as it seeks to enhance its appeal to the fast-growing Hispanic electorate.

"I think that we do need to tackle this issue. I think there is a general agreement within the party that needs to happen, but there is not agreement as to what, exactly, that package needs to look like," Priebus told a Christian Science Monitor-hosted breakfast.

Republican leaders had believed that passing immigration reform in 2013 or 2014 could help the party seem friendlier to minority voters after a 2012 election that saw Romney cite the "47 percent of the people … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims."

A comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Democratic-controlled Senate in June 2013 has stalled in the Republican-controlled House. Republican lawmakers have cited deep divisions in the party over the issue, including granting legal status to 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Wasserman Schultz also rejected the Republican talk of progress on swaying minority voters, saying that Democratic positions resonate with Hispanics even beyond the immigration issue.

She also pointed to a series of statements by Republican officials seen by some as offensive to minorities, including Wisconsin Republican Representative Paul Ryan's comment last week that "we have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working" - a statement critics saw as aimed at blacks.

Democrats maintain their edge in using voter data and technology to mobilize supporters, Wasserman Schultz added, noting the DNC was investing in improving its programs.

She said Democrat Terry McAuliffe's victory last year in the Virginia governor's race showcased Democrats' organizing advantage.

(Editing by Peter Cooney and Andrew Hay)

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