Democrats and Republicans begin an epic battle for a changing Texas
If Republicans do not do better among Hispanics, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has argued, in a few years his home state could turn Democratic. And if Texas, with its haul of 38 electoral college votes, joins other large states such as New York and California as a Democratic bastion, then “no Republican will ever again win the White House”. Mr Cruz, a conservative firebrand elected in 2012, likes lobbing verbal grenades. But his analysis is not contested on the left or right. Texas could soon be up for grabs. Two dates and a pair of cities encapsulate the battle that looms.
The first date is 2020, when Hispanics are on course to represent the largest single group in the Texas population, becoming a majority about a decade later. That is ominous for Republicans: in the 2012 presidential election, their man secured just 27% of Latino votes nationwide. True, Mitt Romney was a hard sell in 21st-century America: a board-stiff New England millionaire running as an immigration hawk. But the challenge facing Republicans is larger than one duff candidate. In his Senate race, Mr Cruz, a youthful Cuban-American albeit one with self-described “lousy” Spanish, won only about 35% of the Hispanic vote.
The second date gives prudent Democrats pause for thought: 1994, the year that “Forrest Gump” topped the box office and the Wonderbra was launched in America. It was also the last time that a Democrat won any statewide office in Texas. Demography alone will not deliver Texas to Democrats: the Hispanic population is over 9.5m, but fewer than half are eligible to vote, and of those many do not bother, notably the young and less educated. Non-Hispanic whites are already a minority, outnumbered by the combined total of other races and ethnicities. Yet Texas remains solidly Republican.
So much for dates. A pair of cities serve to sum up Republican and Democratic rival strategies. The first is Kingsville, the home town of a Mexican-born state representative, J.M. Lozano, who left the Democrats to run as a Republican in the 2012 elections. Though his district is nearly two-thirds Hispanic, Mr Lozano won re-election, albeit narrowly. His defection was encouraged by George P. Bush, the bilingual, half-Mexican son of the former Florida governor, Jeb Bush. The younger Bush is a rising star in his own right, who plans to run for statewide office in Texas in 2014.
Kingsville, an old railway town in the scrublands of south Texas, has several features that cheer Republicans. Its Hispanics are a conservative bunch. Many are third- or fourth-generation Texans, some from families recruited to work as cowboys on the nearby King Ranch, a cattle station larger than the state of Rhode Island. With long-established “ranch names” filling the phone book, immigration is not the burning issue it is elsewhere, says the mayor, Sam Fugate. Kingsville boasts a lot of churches, among them evangelical, Pentecostal and Baptist assemblies whose members are prime Republican targets (more so than Hispanic Catholics, seen as a bit leftish on economic questions). Trade unions are weak. Only a minority of local Hispanics vote, and they tend to be over 35. They are strongly moved by such issues as opposition to abortion, says Mr Lozano. The 30-something Republican concedes that his voters are not small-government zealots, instead favouring well-funded schools, health care and other public programmes. This is mainly a challenge of “messaging”, says Mr Lozano, who tells voters that if they like state safety nets they must ensure they remain sustainable by electing fiscal conservatives. In short, the line from Kingsville is a variation on Ronald Reagan’s claim that pious, entrepreneurial, family-loving Hispanics are Republicans who “just don’t know it yet”. To state Republicans, Hispanics are Texans who just need help to see it.
Democrats disagree. Their strategy could be named after San Antonio, the state’s second-most-populous city. It is the fief of twin brothers on whom many Democratic hopes are pinned: Julián Castro, San Antonio’s mayor, and a newly elected congressman for the west of the city, Joaquín Castro. The brothers grant that Texas is different, but only up to a point. If polled, the gaps in opinion between Hispanics from Texas and those from elsewhere would not be “double-digit”, says the mayor. For instance, like their peers elsewhere, Texan Hispanics “don’t see government as the enemy”.
The brothers praise Battleground Texas, a new outfit created by Jeremy Bird and Jenn Brown—Team Obama’s leading field directors—to increase voter registration and turnout among Hispanics, blacks, suburban women and the young. The group will also train volunteers using tactics and digital wizardry honed in battleground states; North Carolina (ethnically diverse, conservative and southern) is cited as a model. To change Texas, its electorate “has to catch up to the population,” says Mr Bird.
Best not to cheer the death of Anglo Texas too loudly
In short, Republicans are bent on mitigating demographic shifts, and Democrats on harnessing them. The sheer scale of those shifts favours Democrats, unless Republicans go beyond tweaks to messaging and rethink core policies. Mayor Castro concedes that, on immigration, Republicans are moving. A year-and-a-half ago, “they were talking about electrified fences”, he recalls. Now some (though not Mr Cruz) are talking about paths to citizenship.
Yet Democrats risk a backlash, should Texans decide that the party is taking advantage of wrenching changes that are leaving their state unrecognisable. The solution is to find arguments that cut across ethnic lines, says Joaquín Castro. He cites the 30% of all Texan women who lack health insurance as an example of a unifying battle-cry. His brother urges Democrats to build a “big tent” and paint Republicans as extremists, with Mr Cruz as a prime example. The stakes are high. Texas may not be truly competitive for a few more years, but it is already a battleground.