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In Texas, the Future is Linked to Latino Voters

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Texas Republicans apparently see the future coming — but the question is whether they can break their bad habits in time.  The Dallas Morning News this week on how gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott (R) believes the future is linked to Hispanic voters:

In the immediate celebratory afterglow of his GOP primary victory, Greg Abbott went to Hidalgo County, a stretch of South Texas that hasn’t exactly been Disneyland for Republicans.

While there, Abbott pronounced that his goal was to break the record for Hispanic support by a Republican candidate for governor. That peak was reached in 1998, when George W. Bush captured at least 46 percent of the Latino vote statewide, according to exit polls.

More recently, that percentage has dropped to 38 percent, but even if Abbott does only a little better, it would leave Democratic rival Wendy Davis with few plausible paths to victory.

The jostling for the Latino vote is on.

Texas Latino voters are 27% of the state electorate, and some Texas Republicans have been attuned to the importance of their vote.  And Texas, in the past, has been so red that a Republican could win statewide while losing a large majority of the Latino vote, as Rick Perry did in 2002 when Tony Sanchez won 85% of Latinos.  But by the next decade, the growing Latino demographic is expected to turn the state purple (or even blue), which means that Republicans are really going to have to reconsider some of their current practices.

This year alone, a Lieutenant Governor’s primary debate made headlines when state Sen. Dan Patrick said he wanted to “stop the invasion” of undocumented immigrants, because they bring crime and disease into Texas.  The current Lt. Gov, David Dewhurst, said he wanted to “shut down” the border, “once and for all.”  Greg Abbott himself caught heat when he referred to heavily-Hispanic south Texas as a “third-world country.”  One primary challenger for John Cornyn’s Senate seat was known for referring to Latinos as “wetbacks” and defending it as “normal as breathing air in south Texas,” while another once claimed that immigration reform would help Obama “destroy America.”  Texas’ post-2010 redistricting plan — which was widely considered discriminatory and had to be thrown out by a federal court — was also an issue.

Texas Republicans may have gotten away with this kind of rhetoric in the past, but with Latinos poised to become a voting plurality in the next six years, they won’t be able to for much longer.  In the Dallas Morning News piece, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) said that some Republican leaders have begun realizing how “off-putting to Hispanics” their language has been.  As he said:

We as a party must be willing to change our stripes just a little bit.  If Republicans can’t win 35 to 40 percent of Hispanic voters, we can’t win another election in just another few years. That’s what Democrats are banking on.

As a recent Latino Decisions report on Latino voters in Texas points out, however, demographics can swing both ways.  While 21% of Latinos nationally identify as Republican, 27% of Texas Latinos do.  The Latino vote is up for grabs for both Democrats and Republicans in Texas.  But it’s going to take real outreach and real policy to win their vote — not just rhetoric.