Can Republicans appeal to Hispanic voters?
For more than one hundred years, the Democratic party had a virtual lock on politics in Texas. That wall came down in a 1961 special election won by a 35-year old college professor named John G. Tower. A solid Goldwater conservative, Tower was the first GOP United States Senator from a Southern state in the 20th century and he continued to serve for 23 years. The party has held Tower’s seat continuously since his retirement in 1984.
Tower’s success was due partly to his aggressive outreach to a growing segment of the Texas electorate, the many voters of Hispanic background. By appointing key staff members who worked with the community between elections, holding “pachangas” or campaign parties in Hispanic neighborhoods, and being responsive to the needs and ambitions of all Texans, Tower was able to obtain substantial support from Hispanic voters in his four elections. He was helped by a party willing to nominate qualified Hispanic candidates such as Ed Yturria, Ed Prado, Ricardo Hinojosa, and Roy Barrera, two of whom now serve as Federal judges. When Bill Clements became the state’s first GOP governor since 1874, Hispanic outreach continued to be an important element of both his campaign and his administration.
It was with the election and administration of Governor George W. Bush, however, that the party’s efforts to expand its base of support took root. In his re-election campaign of 1998, Bush nearly broke even among Hispanic voters while the party elected Tony Garza to the Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry in the state. Over the last fifteen years seven Hispanic candidates have been elected to statewide office running as Republicans. During this time, Republican governors have appointed four Hispanics to the important position of Secretary of State, including San Antonio businesswoman Hope Andrade, who now serves as workforce commissioner for the state.
With an aggressive effort to represent all Texans, the Republican party has been able to obtain support from 40% of Hispanic voters for its statewide candidates in elections from 2000 to 2012. While much media attention focused on Mitt Romney’s limited appeal in the last presidential election, Romney obtained 37% of the Hispanic vote in Texas – roughly 10% higher than his national average. Meanwhile, the state elected its first Hispanic Senator in Ted Cruz.
Among the reasons for this successful outreach is the fact that Texas Hispanics reflect the same philosophical views as other Texans. According to pollster Michael Baselice, 46% of Hispanics in Texas say they are conservative, 36% describe themselves as moderate, and only 18% label themselves as liberal – percentages that mirror the overall state population. Just as important is the prevailing view of most Texas Anglos towards those of Hispanic heritage. From their study of Texas history, they know that the Hispanic presence has been here since before the war for independence. In his personal observations Michael Barone contrasts the Lone Star State with California. “In Texas, white Anglos see people with Hispanic features as fellow Texans. They smile and say howdy…In California, white Anglos, liberal or conservative, treat people with Hispanic features as landscape workers or parking valet attendants. They look past them without speaking or hand them their car keys.” The contrast in attitudes in other states where a sizeable Hispanic presence is relatively recent can be even more dramatic.
In 2001, Texas became one of the first states to enact legislation allowing in-state college tuition for undocumented students, an act signed into law at the time and vigorously defended by Governor Rick Perry in his abortive presidential campaign of 2012. Perry continued the practice of appointing Hispanic leaders to key positions in his administration. Meanwhile, the party expanded its candidate outreach resulting in the party having six Hispanic state representatives, two Hispanic congressmen, and numerous county government elected officials as the current decade began. At the 2012 Republican state convention, attended by some 10,000 activists, the party adopted its “Texas Solution” to the immigration issue, including a guest worker program that would acknowledge the presence of undocumented residents in the state while calling for enhanced border security.
With Perry stepping down after fourteen years as governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott easily won the party’s nomination and will face Democrat Wendy Davis, she of the red tennis shoes and state senate filibuster, in the November election. Abbott frequently reminds his audience that “the blending of cultures in the Lone Star State works. We are all one people. We are all Texans.” This is made even more personal by the fact that Abbott’s wife, Cecilia, would become the first Hispanic First Lady of Texas. As Art Martinez de Vara, mayor of Van Ormy and an active Republican leader, has noted, “there’s no greater definition of a bicultural family than his and that’s kind of what Texas is. Nearly every Hispanic family I know has Anglo family members, and vice versa.
Some savvy Republican strategists, however, fear that the party platform adopted by the GOP state convention in Fort Worth on June 7th may deal a setback to the party’s Hispanic outreach program. The new platform calls for ending in-state tuition for undocumented youth, opposing any guest worker program on the grounds it would depress wages generally and refusing to grant any legal recognition to those without documentation. The party’s candidate for Lt. Governor has warned about the ‘invasion’ of illegal immigrants, many of whom, he argues, bring violence and communicable diseases to the state. The harsher tone in the party’s platform is seen as a response to the sentiment among the delegates that the borders are still unsecured, as dramatically underscored by the nearly 50,000 unaccompanied minors that have entered the United States illegally from Central America since October.
The big question for Texas Republicans is whether itemizing their list of grievances and concerns in the platform so starkly will be shrugged off by the Hispanic community or begins to diminish their considerable support for the GOP. In a survey of registered voters from May 30 to June 8, taken by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune newsletter, Abbott led Davis in the race for governor by a margin of 44% to 32%, similar to his lead in a February survey. What is more significant is Abbott’s performance among Hispanics and women. According to Jim Henson, co-director of the poll, Davis “is not really making any progress with Hispanics. The campaign is either not succeeding or they have not yet begun to fight,” while Abbott “is doing well enough with the groups that are supposed to be the prime components of the Davis coalition – Hispanics and women.” After the poll was released, Davis replaced her out-of-state campaign manager with a Dallas area state representative in what was perceived as an effort to refocus on state issues and concerns. Whether Abbott is able to continue the 20 year record of GOP victories and retain the support of a sizeable number of Hispanic voters will be known in November.
Wayne Thorburn has spent a lifetime involved in conservative and Republican politics. He is the author of the forthcoming Red State: An Insider’s Story of How the G.O.P. Came to Dominate Texas Politics to be released by University of Texas Press this September.