Two Latinos in Texas took center stage in national party politics this Tuesday. The day began a with a press release announcing San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro will deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention later this month. He will be the first Latino to make the limelight speech in the history of the Democratic party. The day ended with Ted Cruz winning the Texas GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, defeating Lt. Governor David Dewhurst by a remarkable thirteen-point margin (57%-43%). Given the lack of statewide party competition, Cruz will likely become the first Latino Senator from the state of Texas.
These stunning developments revive two commonly asked questions about Texas politics: When will Texas turn blue? and, How much longer until Texas Latinos become Republican? The underlying assumption to those questions is that the path to party success runs through the Latino electorate (dos partidos, un camino). In truth, the answer is about the same for both parties: doing well with Latinos hinges on party effort to mobilize and incorporate Latinos into their ranks. Castro and Cruz are symbolic of the different core strengths and opportunities Democrats and Republicans can develop to solidify and expand their Latino base.
Latinos and Democrats in Texas
Latino voters tend to have more policy agreements with Democrats on economic and social issues, so Democrats stand to have a larger Latino base than the GOP. Texas Democrats, like the national party, have not been as effective at voter mobilization, electing Latinos to statewide office, or outside of Latino majority districts. With 9.5 million Latinos in the state though, Texas has many Latino majority districts (Congressional, state legislature, county, city, etc.) and a deep well of untapped Latino political talent that could be groomed for higher office. Equally important, Texas Latino Democratic officials, past and present, can be integral to building the state and national party infrastructure if the party is so inclined. Without a strong party, it will be impossible to build the Latino base or elect Latino Democrats to high-ranking offices.
Texas Democrats have two important tasks before them: further incorporate Latinos into the party decision-making apparatus, and effectively mobilize voters who share political values. Despite years of statewide losses, the Texas Democratic Party still has important criteria for statewide success: voters and money. It was not that long ago, (2008) when 2.9 million voters cast ballots in the Texas Democratic Primary. An even more recent Houston Chronicle article notes Texas is a national leader in Democratic campaign fundraising, but donors are giving 70% of their contributions to candidates in other states. It may take a few election cycles, but the party has the wherewithal to develop strong candidates, mobilize, fund raise effectively and become more competitive than they are today.
Perhaps we are in the midst of observing the tide turn. Earlier this summer the Texas Democratic Party elected Gilberto Hinojosa state party chair; he is the first Latino to hold the position. His political career in the Rio Grande Valley gives him keen insight on the under-mobilized Latino vote in Texas. As noted at the outset, Julian Castro will have the keynote platform, suggesting some within the DNC understand high-ranking Latinos may be a critical component to building their Latino base. Given Castro’s relative youth, a strong performance at the convention could propel a long political career and mobilize Latino voters along the way.
Latinos and Republicans in Texas
Similar to the national party, Republicans in Texas have been especially effective at electing Latinos in non-Latino majority districts and statewide offices in recent years. Since a smaller percentage of Latinos share policy preferences with the Republican Party in its current form, Latinos comprise a small share of their winning coalition. Republicans have beaten Democrats to important symbolic firsts, despite the fact that they have fewer Latino supporters and fewer Latino officeholders. In 1984, Katherine Ortega, Secretary of the Treasury under President Reagan, delivered the RNC keynote address (beating Democrats to the task by 28 years). Today the party is home to very high-profile Latino office holders: Governor Martinez of New Mexico, Governor Sandoval of Nevada, and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Ted Cruz is yet another high-profile example of this GOP success. The number of Texas Latino Republicans running in Latino majority districts has grown, but their victories have been fewer and their tenures shorter.
Looking forward, the GOP will need to increase their share Latino vote share, not just their share of Latinos elected to office. They must shed their association with anti-Latino rhetoric and policy. The party brand is so damaged that some Texas GOP activists eager to engage Latino voters opt to avoid the word “Republican” altogether; focusing on “conservative” instead. More Latinos are open to the prospect of supporting Republican candidates when the party adopts effective outreach strategies. This is not a hypothetical remark, it happened just a few years ago. Latino disposition toward Republicans softened over the course of George W. Bush’s years as governor and president. Republicans have beat Democrats to important symbolic firsts, despite the fact that they have fewer Latino supporters and fewer Latino officeholders.
Similar to Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 2010 campaign, Cruz capitalized on Tea Party momentum and organization. His candidacy brought in endorsements and contributions from national Tea Party leaders and PACs around the country. No matter his outsider status in the primary, Cruz won the Republican Party nomination, and the party establishment he ran against is rooting for him now. Cruz presents a huge opportunity for the state and national GOP to re-cast themselves as a conservative party with appeal to like-minded Latinos and eschew the harsh rhetoric that has driven Latinos from the party.
Latino Decisions national polling shows Latino voters view Republicans as unwelcoming, hostile, and indifferent toward Latinos. High profile Latino political wins must also remain a strategic priority to challenge those perceptions that will not fade on their own. The GOP needs Latino ambassadors more than ever, and it is entirely within their reach to repair and build bridges with the Latino electorate. Republicans have beat Democrats to important symbolic firsts, despite the fact that they have fewer Latino supporters and fewer Latino officeholders.
Julian Castro and Ted Cruz will make history for their respective parties during this election cycle. It is up to Democrats and Republicans to capitalize on these historic choices for long-term future success in Texas and beyond.
Sylvia Manzano is a Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions (and a native Texan).