THE BLOG

Competing for the Latino Vote in Texas

03/21/2014 06:06 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2014

By Loren McArthur, Deputy Director, Civic Engagement, NCLR

The Latino vote is a rising force in American politics, and Texas, with its 36 electoral college votes, is one of the states where the expanding Hispanic electorate has the potential to transform the political map. Hispanics currently comprise 38 percent of the population in Texas and are projected to outnumber Whites by 2020. The conventional narrative is that as Hispanic population and vote share rises in the state, Texas will inevitably shift from red to purple to blue. In reality, both parties face challenges and opportunities in competing for the Hispanic vote. Republicans need to move beyond politics that scapegoat immigrants and alienate Hispanic voters, and they should create an authentic space for Latinos in their party through concerted outreach and substantive policy action. Democrats must make deeper investments in mobilizing Hispanic voters in Texas and give them something to vote for, not just against.

This two-part blog series explores the challenges and opportunities that a rising Hispanic electorate presents to both the GOP and Democrats.

The GOP in Texas: The Politics of Demonization vs. the Politics of Inclusion

The two brands of Republican politics on display in this year's Texas primary elections reveal a party divided about how to approach a rising Hispanic electorate. Some Republicans have chosen to demonize Hispanic immigrants in an effort to win over conservative Tea Party primary voters. State Senator Dan Patrick, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Texas, has actively campaigned for an end to the "illegal invasion from Mexico," while Chris Mapp, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, referred to people who illegally cross the border as "wetbacks" and stated that ranchers should be allowed to shoot them on sight.

Other Republicans have been outspoken in condemning this offensive rhetoric, calling it "thinly veiled racism" and advocating for a more inclusive brand of Republican politics capable of attracting Hispanic support. They include George P. Bush, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's son and the Republican nominee for Texas land commissioner. A Spanish speaker whose mother was born in Mexico, Bush founded the Hispanic Republicans of Texas to expand the party's Hispanic base, has been supportive of immigration reform, and has criticized Republicans who make "ignorant statements" about Hispanics.

When politicians demonize immigrants, they alienate Hispanic voters. As such, Republicans who opt for the politics of demonization also frequently work to erect barriers to Hispanic electoral participation. This two-pronged strategy was in full force during the 2011 Texas legislative session, when Republicans introduced more than 80 anti-immigrant bills, passed a voter identification law that adversely impacts 304,000 Hispanic voters, enacted new restrictions on third-party voter registration efforts, and approved a redistricting plan that did not include a single new Hispanic opportunity district, despite the fact that Hispanics constituted two-thirds of Texas's population growth in the previous decade.

The politics of demonization may produce short-term benefits for some Republican candidates, but they do much to undermine the Republican Party's brand and long-term prospects with Hispanics. Nearly 60 percent of Hispanic voters in Texas know someone who is undocumented. While issues such as the economy and education frequently trump immigration in their priorities, Hispanic voters view efforts to scapegoat undocumented immigrants as attacks on the Hispanic community as a whole. Historically, when Republicans take a hard line on immigrants, they generate increased Hispanic electoral participation and drive Latino voters into the arms of the Democratic Party. In California, for example, former Republican Governor Pete Wilson's anti-immigrant policies galvanized Hispanic voter participation and helped turn that state, with its 55 electoral college votes, from red to blue.

On the other hand, when Republicans actively reach out to the Hispanic community and provide substantive support for Latino policy priorities, they make inroads into Democratic margins and improve their overall electoral performance. Rather than using the old playbook on immigration, Republicans could embrace immigration reform as sound policy and sell the economic and fiscal benefits -- widely touted in the business community -- to the Republican base. George W. Bush pushed for passage of immigration reform during his presidency and called for a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants in the lead-up to his reelection campaign; he won 49 percent of the Texas Latino vote in 2004, 20 points higher than Mitt Romney's total in 2012.

It remains to be seen what lesson the Republicans will learn from this year's elections. George P. Bush won his primary handily, while Dan Patrick won a plurality of votes in his primary and is headed to a runoff with incumbent Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. If Patrick secures the nomination, he faces a serious challenger during the general election in State Senator Leticia Van de Putte, a Latina and one of the Democratic Party's rising stars in Texas. Patrick may yet pay a political price for his anti-immigrant attacks.

Even if Republicans like Patrick reap short-term benefits from attacking Hispanics, history suggests that the strategy will backfire in the long run. Republicans should focus instead on giving Hispanics a real seat at the table in their party and in the political life of the state.

Next Week: The Democrats' Dilemma in Texas

This was first posted to the NCLR Blog.