The Race for the Hispanic Vote

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photo courtesy flickr/whiteafrican photostream

For at least a decade, Texas Democrats have waited for the state’s emerging Latino majority to boost them back to power. Hispanics are now 38 percent of Texas’ population and growing. While historically the state’s Hispanic voter turnout has been dismal—Latinos comprised between 16 and 18 percent of the vote in recent elections—most everyone in Texas politics believed it was just a matter of time before those turnout numbers increased. And once Latino turnout rose even slightly, Democrats might recapture the Legislature and perhaps win a statewide race for the first time since 1994. For Texas Democrats, demographics were destiny.

But not anymore.

The Texas Republican Party is finally making a serious push to appeal to Hispanic voters. Since he was elected in 2010, the chair of the state’s Republican Party, Steve Munisteri, has held Hispanic summits, and set up booths at Hispanic conventions and conferences. He’s also supported the Hispanic Republicans of Texas, a group headed by prominent Hispanic Republicans such as Juan Hernandez and George P. Bush. The group has recruited and funded Latino GOP candidates and convinced some of the biggest donors in the party that Republicans must appeal to Hispanics. “We’re very aware that we need a much larger majority of the Hispanic vote in the future if we’re going to remain the majority,” Munisteri says. “We’re operating on borrowed time.”

With the GOP’s unprecedented push into the Hispanic community, some Democrats worry that their party is falling behind. Devastating losses in the 2010 election resulted in four Hispanic Republicans in the state House and two in Congress, which forced many Democrats to consider the notion for the first time that a significant number of Hispanics in Texas might not vote Democratic.

“I think for the longest time [the Democratic Party], including myself, automatically thought that if you were a Latino you voted Democrat,” says Linda Chavez-Thompson who ran for lieutenant governor last year. “That’s not true anymore. We need to ramp up our Latino outreach. We can’t sit back and let the Republicans take votes because we don’t have a message for Latino voters.

“We need to get off our hinies and do something to make sure Latinos stay Democrats and give them a reason to stay Democrats,” Chavez-Thompson says with the characteristic earthiness she’s honed in her decades as a labor organizer.

Since losing the race for lieutenant governor last year, she’s had some time to ponder why more Hispanic voters didn’t turn out. More effort and money needs to be spent on targeted messaging, recruiting Latino candidates and voter outreach, she said. Some major Democratic donors have set up groups aimed at boosting Latino turnout for Democrats.

It starts, Chavez-Thompson said, with the Democratic Party recruiting more Latinos to run for elected office and party leadership positions. “How can we sit at the table when the people heading the table don’t look like us?”

Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Cameron County Democratic Party, recently announced he’ll run for chair of the state party. He questions whether the Democrats should continue with their reliance on big media buys, expensive campaign mailers and high-paid consultants, or focus more on old-fashioned block walking and grassroots outreach. The only way to reach more Hispanic voters will be by knocking on their doors, he said “The only way to win is boots on the ground,” he says. “It’s amazing to me that we haven’t figured this out yet.”

The party has been spending too much time and money trying to turn out independent voters, Hinojosa argues, instead of focusing on their base. “Our base is 70 percent of Texans – it’s not only Latinos but African Americans, Asians, women, college students and the LGBT community,” Hinojosa says. “We need to increase our registered voters and we need a Latino engagement program in the community.”

Matt Angle, a Washington consultant who some Democrats say has largely helmed the Democratic Party in Texas the past few years, doesn’t agree that Latinos have been taken for granted. It’s a matter of funding, he says.

“So many Hispanics are within safe districts, so the resources aren’t spent in safe districts,” Angle says. “And Democrats haven’t had the resources to aggressively run statewide. While the intention is not to disregard Hispanics, the effect is sometimes the same.”

Hinojosa agrees that money matters, but what’s more important is how it’s spent. Too much of it goes to expensive mailers and commercials. “When does a candidate’s mailer ever influence you to vote for someone?” he says. “I live in the heart of the barrio and when I get a mailer I throw it away. My neighbor uses them to sweep up the trash,” he said. “We need well-trained canvassers in neighborhoods and Latino engagement efforts that focus on what’s important to communities and to let them know their involvement in the political process is important.”

Texas Democrats could learn, Hinojosa says, from California, Nevada and Colorado Demosrats’ successes in turning out Latino voters in the 2010 election. In a year in which the Tea Party was killing everyone else, all three states had big Democratic wins due to Latino support. “Nevada spent a lot of money, but they had a focused strategy, and Harry Reid won because of the large Latino voter turnout.”

California has a similar Latino voting population as Texas, but it consistently turns out higher numbers at the polls. Census Bureau figures show that in California, nearly 60 percent of eligible Latinos turnout to vote. The national average is about 50 percent. In Texas, it’s 37 percent.

Some party leaders and campaign consultants dispute the idea that increased get-out-the-vote operations will solve Texas Democrats’ problems. Last August, the Observer wrote a feature story that chronicled some Democrats’ argument for more grassroots turnout in campaigns. The story engendered fierce criticism from some leading Democratic campaign consultants. They say that grassroots turnout operations are certainly valuable, but they’re not a panacea. They also argue that no campaign can succeed, especially in a state this size, without heavy investment in media advertising.

Indeed, state Rep. Aaron Peña, who recently switched to the Republican Party, says he ran for state Democratic chair 10 years ago and made the same argument that Hinojosa is making, but to no avail. “The Democratic Party has grown so comfortable with Hispanics that they’ve taken them for granted. … The party needs to wake up and end its addiction to the old ways. From my perspective it’s on life support and nearly dead.”

Chavez Thompson said that many big Democratic donors were shell-shocked by the results of the 2010 elections and she hoped this will result in more funding for outreach.  “Maybe this time we can do better outreach,” she said. “Not only do we need to register voters but we need to educate them, get them to participate and empower them.” And now, with the organized GOP push for Latino candidates and voters, they must also make a persuasive case for Latinos not to register and vote Republican.

Republicans have their own challenges. The overwhelming majority of Latinos still vote Democratic. And the GOP hasn’t helped itself in recent years by endorsing harsh anti-immigration policies. But Republicans don’t have to win over all Latinos, or even a majority. If they simply capture 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas, they could retain their stranglehold on Texas government for decades to come. 

Until last year’s election, it was assumed that the state’s emerging Hispanic majority would favor Democrats. But with five new Hispanic Republicans in the Texas Legislature and two more in Congress, that’s no longer a given. With Hispanic Republicans of Texas and other outreach groups, the GOP is making a play for permanent dominance in Texas. And whichever party is most successful in turning out and winning over Hispanic voters will control state politics for years to come.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.