Portrait of a Party-Switcher

Democrat-Turned-Republican J.M. Lozano’s primary race will test GOP attitudes toward Latino candidates.

After the Republican sweep of 2010, state Rep. J.M. Lozano was the last Democrat standing from the Coastal Bend area near Corpus Christi. With his redrawn district looking more Republican after redistricting, Lozano earlier this year took the path of self-preservation: He switched parties.

Now the former Democrat is trying to win the Republican primary on May 29 against two Anglo challengers. The race is widely seen as a test of the GOP voters’ acceptance of Hispanic candidates.

Some Texas Republicans are trying to make their party more appealing to the state’s emerging Latino majority—getting Lozano to switch parties was part of that effort. But they have a nasty history to overcome. There have been several infamous races in which Hispanic GOP candidates complained they lost their primary elections against lesser-known Anglos because of Republican voters’ hostility toward candidates with Spanish surnames. The most recent example was former Texas Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo, who lost his bid for reelection in the 2010 GOP primary to a virtually unknown candidate named David Porter.

That history may seem daunting, but if Lozano wanted to remain in the Legislature, abandoning the Democratic Party may have been his best option. House District 43 was once a Democratic majority district. But during the redistricting reshuffle, the district was radically re-jiggered into a more Republican-leaning district that strangely resembles a raptor ready to devour Corpus Christi.

In the primary, Lozano, who is from Kingsville, will be running against Willie Vaden a perennial Republican candidate and the former Mayor of Ingleside as well as architect Bill Wilson of Portland who has never held public office. Both of his Republican opponents reside in San Patricio County, the largest population center in HD 43, which also encompasses slices of Bee, Jim Wells and Kleberg counties.

The 32 year-old Lozano owns a franchise of Wingstop restaurants in the Coastal Bend region and once worked for Democratic Congressman Ruben Hinojosa. It was George P. Bush, nephew of former President Bush, and businessman George Antuna from the Hispanic Republicans of Texas who persuaded Lozano to switch parties in March. “We were on a three-way conference call as he was basically having to make a decision,” Antuna says. “George P was very instrumental in talking him into it.”

The money helped too. When Lozano switched parties, the GOP spigot opened up for his campaign. Stalwart GOP donor Bob Perry gave $15,000, Texans for Lawsuit Reform contributed $10,000, and Houston millionaire John Nau who kicked in $5,000. The Hispanic Republicans of Texas also gave $10,000. His campaign has already vastly outspent the other two candidates, and he still has more than $55,000 on hand, according to his most recent campaign filing. Vaden has raised just $10,000 and Wilson has raised approximately $45,000 for his campaign, according to campaign filings.

But money isn’t everything, there’s also name recognition. Lozano still has his hometown base in Kleberg but the rest of the district is unknown territory. Antuna says he always tells Hispanic Republicans that they have to work twice as hard to win over Republican voters. “He’s got to work it. He’s got to get out there and block walk and knock on Anglo voters doors and talk to them and let them know he’s one of them,” Antuna says. “Every candidate should be on the shoe leather express.”

Whether Republicans will believe Lozano is “one of them” remains to be seen. He ran in the 2010 Democratic primary, arguing that his opponent Tara Rios Ybarra was a closet Republican, and railed against Texans for Lawsuit Reform for its support of Ybarra. Then in his one and only legislative session, he voted against the budget and Voter ID—two key GOP-backed bills. In a recent op-ed in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Texas Democratic Party Chair Boyd Richie called Lozano’s party flip after redistricting “repugnant.”

“Rather than fight when things got tough, Lozano threw his principles out the window and joined a party that has betrayed his constituents. And he did it all because he thinks it’ll help him stay in office,” Richie wrote.

After switching, Lozano told the Rio Grande Guardian that the Democratic Party was not in line with his “pro-business, pro-life and pro-oil and-gas exploration” values. “I tried, at the start of the session, to make the Democratic Party the party of small business. … Not only was I ignored, I was, in a condescending way, dismissed. So, I can say that I tried. I will no longer try. I will do my part in the Republican Party to continue to vote pro-life, pro-business, and pro-oil and-gas exploration.”

But first, Lozano will have to survive the GOP primary. It wasn’t lost on the candidate that in 2010 his fellow Democrats were beaten by Hispanic Republicans Raul Torres and Jose Aliseda. But 2012 could be a different story. This election cycle, Aliseda decided not to run again for state rep. while Torres is running for the Texas Senate. Lozano’s fate in the May 29 Republican primary could demonstrate whether 2010 was an anomaly for the GOP or a sign that the party is really making headway with Hispanic candidates.