The first Latina elected to Congress is retiring this year, but she has issued an important message to her fellow Republicans as she steps down. In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the GOP would lose more elections and possibly "this whole generation" if it does not "aggressively pursue" young voters.
Ros-Lehtinen remarked that in the last few years, the Republican Party had been struggling to accumulate support from women, minorities, and young people. She told NPR that this was especially evident following the midterm elections, which saw Democratic women and minority candidates shattering records.
“The young people rejected the Republican Party,” Ros-Lehtinen told NPR. “There’s really no other way to say it. Suburban women left our party. And minorities did not see us as a welcoming voice.”
While Democrats added 25 women to their ranks in Congress, Republicans elected 10 fewer women to Congress this year, which Ros-Lehtinen described as "unbelievable," "astounding," and "eye-popping." She suggested that this was a result of the GOP's disproportionate focus on the conservative, white male vote, rather than on the whole country.
"I hope that our Republican leaders see this as a challenge and a problem that we need to fix," Ros-Lehtinen said. "Instead of going forward, we're going backward. ... We need to pay attention to the changing demographics of our country."
Ros-Lehtinen also told NPR that although she is a Republican, she did not vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. She identifies as "a Jeb Bush Republican," she said, and a "George W. Bush Republican," and appeared to denounce the ways in which her "party has changed." Ros-Lehtinen has also set herself apart from other Republicans in the past by being the first Republican in the House to support marriage equality; she has often pushed her party on the issue of LGBTQ rights, per the Miami Herald.
In addition to being the first Latina elected to Congress, Ros-Lehtinen was also the first Cuban-American elected to Congress, the Miami Herald reported, and the first woman to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Ros-Lehtinen suggested to NPR that the "Cuban-American vote is still solidly Republican," but urged Republicans to do more to attract women, young people, and other minorities.
According to Raw Story, Ros-Lehtinen has served as a representative for Florida’s 27th Congressional District since 1989, but she believes that her district — which is 43 percent Cuban-American — may be leaning away from the Republican Party.
During the 2016 presidential election, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat Trump by nearly 20 points in Ros-Lehtinen's district, and during this year's midterm elections, Democrat Donna Shalala won the seat from which Ros-Lehtinen is stepping down. Ros-Lehtinen told NPR that the GOP would continue to face electoral difficulties if it did not reassess its political strategy.
"You just have to show people that you care," Ros-Lehtinen said. "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."
Ros-Lehtinen will be retiring in January after nearly 30 years in Congress, and the Miami Herald reported that her first plan is to teach a class at the University of Miami alongside her husband.