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How did Texas Republicans win over Hispanic voters?

A lesson from the Lone Star State.

Among the many lessons to be learned from the 2014 midterm elections is that Republicans can attract a significant portion of the Hispanic vote.  This was evident in Colorado, where Cory Gardner pulled in some 40% of the growing Hispanic electorate as he knocked off Democratic Senator Mark Udall.  It was even more apparent in Nevada and New Mexico where governors Raul Sandoval and Susana Martinez coasted to victory and helped bring in new GOP state legislative majorities. The gains for Hispanic Republicans were substantial and nationwide, including in West Virginia??s election of a Hispanic to Congress and the close loss of a young Hispanic female in New Hampshire??s 2nd district.

Nowhere were the Hispanic gains more significant than in Texas where exit polls showed Senator John Cornyn besting his Democratic opponent among Hispanic voters.  Cornyn??s  majority among Hispanics came as his contest appeared at the top of the ballot and set a positive trend for GOP gains in other races.  The party continued its pattern of winning every statewide contest since 1994 and the GOP recaptured a 60% Hispanic congressional district they had lost in 2012 and elected two more Hispanic state representatives from predominantly Hispanic districts.

While Cornyn topped off the ballot and led the ticket, most media attention was focused on the race between State Senator Wendy Davis and Attorney General Greg Abbott to become the next governor of the Lone Star State.  In winning by a margin of almost one million votes, Abbott gained the votes of 44% of Hispanics, surpassing the 41% in 2006 and 38% in 2010 obtained by Rick Perry.  As the media and political observers focused on the ??Battleground Texas? efforts to register more Hispanics and turn them out for Davis, the Abbott campaign undertook a methodical approach to enhancing its standing among this growing community in Texas.

Abbott never wavered on the issues he deemed most important to all Texans.  While stressing the importance of education and opportunity for future generations, his overall message was that he was fighting for Texas families and values.  Noting that Washington was not doing the job, he pledged that as Texas governor he would secure the border, protect the 2nd amendment, rein in the EPA, and work to end Obamacare.  Abbott??s position on these issues was not inconsistent with the views of many Hispanic Texans, realizing that there is a diversity of opinions present among Hispanics as well as Anglos on these issues.

Perhaps even more important than Abbott??s stance on the various issues was the campaign??s recognition of the symbolic nature of politics.  Too often movement conservatives who live and breathe ideology and issues every day overlook the fact that, for many voters, the choice on election day comes down to the candidate they can relate to, who portrays a positive and optimistic outlook, who reflects their view of leadership.   Factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, personal appearance,  as well as partisanship and other characteristics all play a role in which candidate an individual chooses.  Were this not the case, then millions of African-American evangelicals and Catholics who are against abortion and gay marriage would not be casting ninety percent of their votes for liberal Democratic candidates.

In reaching out to Hispanic voters, Greg Abbott had some important built-in advantages. He frequently mentioned that his wife, Cecilia, would be the first Hispanic First Lady of Texas.  His outreach to the Hispanic community was further aided by the early creation and staffing of eight grassroots engagement centers by the Republican Party of Texas.  Located throughout the state, each with a fulltime field and engagement staff, the effort began in 2013 and was partially funded by the Republican National Committee.  Under the leadership of David Zapata of the state party staff, these centers went into the community and established on-going relations with local voters.  Supplementing the party??s efforts, Abbott??s field operation employed ninety paid staffers, including fourteen assigned full-time to south Texas.  The candidate made seventeen campaign visits to the Rio Grande Valley, where Mexican-Americans comprise over three-fourths of the population.  Some five million dollars was spent on an intensive outreach and field operation and three million invested in Spanish radio and television commercials.

No single television commercial was as important in this outreach effort as the testimonial of Abbott??s mother-in-law.  In the ad, Maria De La Luz Segura tells the viewers, ??I love having Greg Abbott as my son-in-law.  And Texas will love having him as Governor.?   Writer Thomas Lifson summarized the importance of this strategy when he noted, ??Abbott??s campaign deftly picked up relationships and cultural themes that resonated with a significant part of the electorate, and positioned him as someone benignly supportive of them. ??  Shown in both English and Spanish versions, it was also the basis for billboards displayed throughout the Rio Grande Valley and south Texas.  The ad ran for more than

While Abbott??s support among Hispanics was impressive, it does not match the performance of George W. Bush in his 1998 gubernatorial re-election campaign, where he obtained 49% of the Hispanic vote.  Nor is it likely to have matched this year??s showing of another Bush, George P. Bush, who was elected Commissioner of the General Land Office in his first try for public office.  Bush, whose mother was born in Mexico and whose father was governor of Florida, made no secret of his Hispanic heritage. No exit poll data is available for the Land Commissioner contest but in the fifteen largest counties with an overall 45.2% Hispanic population and at least 100,000 Hispanics in each county, Bush outvoted Abbott.  Both candidates carried nine of the fifteen, including Harris (Houston), Bexar (San Antonio), Tarrant (Fort Worth-Arlington), Collin (Plano), and Nueces (Corpus Christi).  From these 15 counties Abbott built a net lead of 128,828 votes while Bush??s net advantage was 331,572 over his Democratic opponent, former El Paso mayor John Cook.   Thus, while Abbott??s showing is impressive, the appeal of an Hispanic Bush in these areas was even greater.

The results from the 2014 midterm election in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and elsewhere show that when Republican candidates appeal on a personal and individual basis to the Hispanic community, a significant level of support can be obtained.  Even more than issue positions, the language a candidate uses, the empathetic and welcoming approach they make, and the year-round effort to relate to the community can produce support for conservative Republican candidates.  While issue positions and public policy stands are the reasons many conservatives became politically active it is essential to remember that other factors can have a greater impact on many voters, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Wayne Thorburn is author of Red State: An Insider??s Story of How the G.O.P. Came to Dominate Texas Politics, published this Fall by University of Texas Press. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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