First Latina Elected To Congress Retires With A Warning To Republicans

Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen warned party leaders that what she sees as the GOP’s focus on conservative, white, male voters harms its electoral prospects. In an interview with Morning Edition host Rachel Martin, Ros-Lehtinen said Republicans would “lose this whole generation” if it did not “aggressively pursue” young voters.

Following Mitt Romney’s presidential loss in 2012, the GOP commissioned an “autopsy” to examine its future chances at winning over women and minority candidates. Ros-Lehtinen says the party has failed itself by ignoring those findings, symbolized for many by the nomination in 2016 of Donald Trump.

While a record number of women were elected to Congress in 2018, it was driven by Democrats. Republicans will go into next year with fewer women in the House – just 13, compared to the current total of 23 Republican women. Democrats will have 89 women in the new House, up from 64 now.

Ros-Lehtinen has had a historic career, as the first Latina and first Cuban-American in Congress, as well as being the first woman to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

She’s retiring from Congress after nearly 30 years in office. Ros-Lehtinen consistently won reelection in her Miami-based district, which is 43 percent Cuban-American, a typically reliable GOP voting bloc. However, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Ros-Lehtinen’s district by nearly 20 points in 2016, and her House seat flipped to Democrats in 2018.

Interview highlights

On the direction of the Republican Party

I’m not saying that I’m leaving because Donald Trump got elected. I’m a Republican, but I did not vote for Donald Trump. I’m a Jeb Bush Republican. I’m a George W. Bush Republican. We had a lovely Mass for Bush 41, and I’m thinking, boy those speeches. Can they really be made this day in age? Things have changed. My party has changed.

On Republicans sending ten fewer women to the House

It is unbelievable. It is astounding. It is eye-popping, and I hope that our Republican leaders see this as a challenge and a problem that we need to fix. Instead of going forward, we’re going backward … We need to pay attention to the changing demographics of our country. We have not been attuned to that. We have been appealing to one certain section of America. I don’t know what you want to call it. The white, male conservative is definitely getting a lot of issues thrown their way.

On Republican shortfalls with women and minorities

The young people rejected the Republican Party. There’s really no other way to say it. Suburban women left our party. And minorities did not see us as a welcoming voice. You just have to show people that you care. And we’re not even willing to do that. We don’t go to those neighborhoods. We don’t go to suburbia. We don’t talk to women. We’re not doing anything to appeal to those groups.

On the Cuban-American vote and the GOP

The press has always been saying that the changing demographics of our Cuban-American population is shifting to the left, and you can say that to a small degree, but when you look at how other candidates, other Republican candidates who are not President Trump, in this election [Florida Gov.-elect] Ron DeSantis did very well with the Cuban-American vote. [Sen.-elect] Rick Scott did very well with Cuban votes. For all intents and purposes, you can say that the Cuban-American vote is still solidly Republican.

We’re always talking about how the younger people of Cuban-American descent are tilting more to the Democratic side, but when you look at the numbers and statistics, Republicans are still doing well with the base Cuban voter. We’ve been talking about that shift for decades.

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