Demographics No Longer Destiny for Democrats

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There’s a rule of thumb in journalism that “two’s a coincidence, three’s a trend.” Two of something may mean nothing, but find three examples and you’ve got yourself a story. So what to make of the two defections of Hispanic lawmakers from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in the past year?

First, state Rep. Aaron Peña, a four-term Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley, announced right before the 2011 legislative session that he was switching to the GOP. Then, in March of this year, another South Texas Democrat switched parties.

This time it was freshman J.M. Lozano, who represents a district that stretches from Kingsville to Harlingen. (Lozano’s a real piece of work. In 2010, he ousted Democratic incumbent Tara Rios Ybarra by claiming that, “[what] we have to do is get rid of all the closet Republicans from the Democratic Party.”)

Are these isolated events, or signs of realignment? Democrats have reacted by dismissing Peña and Lozano as turncoats who represent nothing more than their own fevered egos. Democrats cling to the comforting thought that Republicans are too extreme on immigration, voter ID, and spending on education and social services to gain a percentage with Latinos. The GOP, after all, unexpectedly drummed a conservative Republican, Victor Carrillo, off the Railroad Commission in favor of a white guy who knew nothing about oil and gas. The problem wasn’t that Carrillo was a no-name politician, but that he was a Spanish-surname politician in a xenophobic party. If the GOP base turns on one of its own just for being Hispanic, how can it expect to bring Latinos into the fold? Well, apariencias engañan. Appearances deceive.

Texas Democrats have assumed for at least a decade that population growth among Latinos will translate—eventually, inexorably—into the resurgence of their party. But Republicans are making a long-term, sustained play for Hispanic voters in Texas. In classic conservative fashion, prominent Republicans like George P. Bush launched a top-down strategy: recruiting and running Hispanic Republicans in targeted districts. In 2010, voters elected five Latino Republicans to the Legislature. One of those Republicans, Raul Torres of Corpus Christi, is now taking on long-time Democratic state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. Democratic strategists will quickly point out that 2010 was just an incredibly good year for Republicans, and data suggests those five were elected largely by Anglos.

Rebecca Acuña, spokesperson for the Democratic Party, recently wrote in an op-ed that there are 668 Democratic Hispanic elected officials in Texas to just 60 in the Republican Party. Beyond the odd head-counting (how many Latinos do you have?), Acuña’s argument obscures a more important point: The GOP already dominates Texas; it doesn’t need to win over every Latino, or even a majority. Victory for Republicans lies in the margins. They need only peel off just enough Latinos to keep winning every statewide office, both houses of the Legislature and two-thirds of the congressional delegation.

Demographics, we are told, is destiny. But people and parties make their own destinies. For more than a decade, Texas Democrats have failed repeatedly to take advantage of the incredible potential among Latino voters. The problem is well known: Latino turnout in Texas is abysmal compared to other states. In 2008, 38 percent of Texas Latinos went to the polls. In California the turnout was 57 percent. Everyone knows this. The party’s old guard doesn’t put much time or effort into engaging and energizing potential Latino voters. Rather, its main strategy involves putting a Latino at the top of the ballot—think Tony Sanchez for governor or Rick Noriega for U.S. Senate—and hoping that Latinos will magically turn out to vote. Guess what? It doesn’t work.

There are signs that Democrats are finally going on the offensive. The party recently launched The Promesa Project, an effort to get young Latinos to “promise” to act as “Democratic messengers to their families and social networks,” according to the project’s website. The party is investing $1 million in it. Better than nothing. Yet Promesa, modeled on the “Great Schlep,” a 2008 initiative deployed in Florida to get young Jews to convince their grandparents to vote for Obama, is only a complement, not a substitute, to the dull, block-by-block work needed to enfranchise Latinos. Until that happens, Texas Democrats run the risk of becoming even more irrelevant.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.