When the Congressional Hispanic Caucus was formed in 1976, it had five congressmen and Puerto Rico’s commissioner as members. The running joke about their small number was they could hold meetings in a phone booth.

Established to set a Latino legislative agenda, the caucus’s Mexican-American, Cuban-American and Puerto Rican membership grew steadily to include 21 House members as it became increasingly influential.

Then in 2003, its three Republican members — Mexican-American Henry Bonilla of Texas and two Cuban-American colleagues from Florida — bolted. At the time, another Texan, Ciro Rodrmguez, was caucus chairman. Bonilla stated on his departure that the new group was forming to "look out for the best interests of all Hispanics — not just those with liberal politics."

Henry Bonilla’s loss to Ciro Rodrmguez in a special election runoff this month is more than irony. It’s an earthquake with aftershocks reaching the rest of his party.

When the Congressional Hispanic Conference, the rump GOP group, meets in January minus Bonilla, it will comprise four Cuban-Americans, including one senator, all from Florida, two Californians of Portuguese extraction, and the resident commissioner from the commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, the addition of Ciro Rodrmguez means the all-Democrat Caucus, in the 110th Congress, including its two Senate members, will have 18 Mexican-Americans, three Puerto Ricans, two Cuban-Americans and one Portuguese-American belonging to it.

With future GOP growth depending on Hispanic outreach, Republicans are starting out with a reversal of fortune. Hispanics, about 8 percent of all voters in November, an increase of 1.8 million voters over 2002, went 73 percent for the Democratic candidates.

How Henry Bonilla, a seven-term incumbent, came to lose his congressional seat is a story with many twists and turns. The former San Antonio TV news director was the face of the Republican Party’s big-tent strategy. He was a well-known protigi of Tom Delay and had a nice seat on the influential House Appropriations Committee.

In 2004, Ciro Rodrmguez and Henry Cuellar were pitted against each other, under a Delay-drawn Texas redistricting scheme. Rodrmguez’s 28thDistrict was designed to range far south from San Antonio. Beloved by the GOP for his maverick, often conservative positions, Cuellar defeated four-term incumbent Rodrmguez by 58 votes.

Rodrmguez came back to challenge Cuellar in the 2006 Democratic primary again, and again he lost.

But after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling led to redrawing of Bonilla’s nearby 23rd district, Rodrmguez entered that race. Bonilla won the first round, coming within one percentage point of a majority needed to avoid a runoff in a pack that included six Democrats and one Independent. Rodriguez came in second with only 20 percent, but in a Rocky Balboa-like performance in this month’s runoff, he won handily with 54 percent.

What should alarm Republican planners is that Bonilla, with a huge funding advantage, was unable for the first time in his political career to carry San Antonio’s Bexar County. More noteworthy is that the 23rd is nearly 54 percent Republican.

Bonilla’s fall carries tremendous implications for Republicans.

Even the demographics for some "safe" territories like Florida are not favorable. There, for instance, the state’s Latino population increased 106 percent from 1990 to 2004. The increases were mainly among people with ties to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. In the last 20 years, the Cuban share of the state’s Latino population has declined from more than half to about 31 percent.

What is the Republican big-tent vision now? What will it do to avoid shrinking into the party of the South and the suburbs?

Big-picture Republican strategists were plainly concerned about this after the November elections. That’s why President Bush named first-term Florida Senator Mel Martmnez as titular head of the Republican National Committee.

It seems moderate Hispanic political values may begin showing up as core Republican beliefs. If the GOP expects to get some traction among Hispanic voters, it needs to tone down the confrontational rhetoric and show where the real differences are between Hispanic Republicans and Democrats.

Unless Martmnez succeeds, more Republican meetings will be held in phone booths. And like cell phones have proven, phone booths are now obsolete.

(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail: joseisla3(at)yahoo.com)