by Alexa Ura, Texas Tribune
As many candidates’ campaigns for the March primaries are in full swing, Hispanic Republicans trying to increase their numbers in the state House are mostly looking past the primaries. Their main fight is in November.
While the Democratic primary races feature five contests in which Hispanic House incumbents will face Hispanic opponents, the three Hispanic incumbents in the GOP did not pick up primary challengers. Instead, they will face off against Democrats and Libertarians in the general election.
And while Democrats argue that their primary brackets are indicative of a platform more in tune with Hispanics in Texas, Republicans say their party is seeing an increase in Hispanic candidates and expects to see more in the near future as a result of outreach efforts.
“The party’s role is not to select or pick candidates during primaries,” said David Zapata, Hispanic engagement director for the Republican Party of Texas. “However, we expect that in the near future, our Hispanic engagement efforts will result in more Hispanic conservatives feeling ready and prepared to run for office within our Republican primary system at a larger rate.”
GOP incumbents include state Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, who will face Democrat Kim Gonzalez, a Nueces County assistant district attorney, in the general election. Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, picked up opponents in Democrat Chris Osborn and Libertarians Irene Johnson and Lillian Simmons. Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, will face Libertarian Thomas Griffing.
In addition, there will be Hispanic Republican candidates looking to unseat four Hispanic House Democrats in November. Zapata added that the party is optimistic about those challengers being able to compete in areas that have often been seen as safe districts for Democrats, including House races in San Antonio and Hidalgo County.
During the 2009 legislative session, there were no Hispanic Republican legislators among the GOP’s ranks in the House and Senate. Five Hispanic Republicans were elected to the House in 2010 as part of a Republican sweep.
Following the 2012 elections and a party switch by Lozano, there are now three Hispanic Republican House members. There are seven Hispanic Democrats in the state Senate but no Hispanic Republicans.
Cal Jillson, a political scientist professor at Southern Methodist University, said the lack of Hispanic challengers in GOP primaries is part of a historic problem that Republicans have to overcome. He said that for the party to have more Hispanics among its officeholders, Hispanic voters must “recognize themselves in the Republican Party.”
“Historically, the number of Republican Hispanic incumbents has been quite small, and so there’s not that many opportunities for Hispanic-on-Hispanic challenges,” Jillson said. “It’s certainly true that ideally the Republican Party would like to be so rich and credible with Hispanic candidates that they would have incumbents and Hispanic challengers and ideally that would strengthen their hold on the district as they get the best candidate in office.”
On the Democratic side, there are 30 Hispanic House members, and most are running unopposed this election cycle. At least four of the five Hispanic Democrats who picked up primary challengers will face opponents in March who are also Hispanic, including state Rep. Naomi Gonzalez of El Paso, who is up against two Hispanic primary challengers.
Texas Democratic Party spokesman Emmanuel Garcia said it’s not surprising that more Hispanics put their names on Democratic ballots, because the party better represents the Latino community.
Garcia cited the GOP’s platform — which calls for the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, the top 10 percent law and federal early childhood development programs — in explaining why Hispanic Democratic candidates outnumber Hispanic Republicans.
“I think when you go issue by issue on what’s important to Texas Latinos, the Republican Party simply isn’t there,” Garcia said. “Unless there’s a dramatic shift on the feelings of the party and their actual policy proposals, they’re not going to get there.”
Zapata has said that the party’s values, including its stance on economic issues and a less intrusive government, resonate with the Hispanic community and are part of the basis of its engagement efforts.
Hector De Leon, co-chairman of the Associated Republicans of Texas, said the lack of primary challengers — Hispanic or not — shows that the Texas GOP has done well in recruiting “credible [and] competent” Hispanic representatives to run for office who have avoided primary challengers by “keeping in touch with their constituents.”
But De Leon also said that if the GOP had a “real presence” in the Hispanic community, Hispanic Republicans would challenge one another for the same position in the primaries. De Leon used the current race for lieutenant governor — in which four white Republican candidates are competing in the primary election — as an example of a matchup Hispanic Republicans don’t typically find themselves in. The winner will face Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, in the general election.
“Ideally, that’s where you’d want to be,” De Leon said, adding that the GOP must continue to make progress in attracting new candidates and voters to the party by toning down rhetoric “that’s not particularly welcoming” to Hispanics.
The House District 117 race in San Antonio is the only contest with two Hispanic Republican candidates. Republican Rick Galindo and former state Rep. John V. Garza are both campaigning for the nomination to try to take the district from Democratic incumbent Rep. Philip Cortez.