Republican leaders are looking expectantly to the ethnically, racially and geographically diverse population that could shape the state’s conservatism for the future.
by Geraldo L. Cadava
The half-century-old Democratic dream of turning Texas blue has always depended upon Latinos.This year, hundreds of thousands of Latinos in Texas will vote for the first time, and more Texans have cast votes early than the total number who voted in 2016, giving Democrats hope that the dream is within grasp — even if they don’t win this year.
But Luisa del Rosal, a Republican running in a north Dallas suburb for a seat in the state’s House of Representatives, said the shift in demographics “isn’t something Republicans are taking lying down.” They, too, are courting nonwhite voters in a state where the Latino population will make up the largest share by 2021.
She isn’t alone. In Texas, the Republican Party is looking expectantly to the ethnically, racially and geographically diverse population that could define Texan conservatism for the future.
Republican leaders in Texas have long understood the importance of recruiting Hispanic voters and have tailored their messages to appeal to them. In 1966, Senator John Tower was the first Republican to win double-digit support from Hispanics in Texas. His 30 percent share of the Latino vote in his successful re-election campaign was the product of years of outreach to the Mexican-American community.
Then in 1978, Mr. Tower enlisted the help of Lionel Sosa, a Hispanic ad executive from San Antonio. Mr. Sosa put together a media campaign that featured “El Corrido de John Tower,” a song written as a traditional Mexican ballad that espoused his support for bilingual education and small businesses. Mr. Tower went on to win 37 percent of the Latino vote and then introduced Mr. Sosa to Ronald Reagan, who hired him to work on his presidential campaign. Mr. Sosa helped Mr. Reagan win more than a third of the Latino vote in 1980 and 1984.
Later, Gov. George W. Bush and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas deployed their Mexican-American family members to appeal to Hispanics. Mr. Bush’s nephew George P. Bush, the current commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, said at a campaign rally that his uncle could be counted on to “change the Republican Party so that it starts to represent our views, and our faces, and our diversity.” Mr. Abbott took a similar approach. His Mexican-American wife, Cecilia, and her mother, Maria de la Luz Segura de Phalen, were featured prominently in campaign commercials.
Rudy Alamillo, a political scientist, has argued that such “identity-based appeals” by non-Hispanic candidates can be quite effective. Mr. Bush won almost half of the Latino vote in his campaigns for governor and is the only presidential candidate to win with more than 40 percent of the Latino vote. Mr. Abbott won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in Texas in 2014 and 2018.
The diverse slate of candidates running for office in Texas this year signals what the future of the Republican Party could look like. In Dallas County alone, the Republicans running for seats in the Texas State House include women, millennials, immigrants, a Black candidate and a biracial candidate. Statewide, the Republican roster isn’t nearly as diverse as the Democrats’, but it’s a notable improvement compared with recent elections.
The Hispanic candidates among them have been drawn to the Republican Party because it is more aligned with their views on religious freedom, patriotism, free enterprise, Second Amendment rights and support for law enforcement. But the candidates emphasize different issues depending on their background and the district they aim to represent.
Ms. del Rosal, who was recently endorsed by The Dallas Morning News, is running on a small-government, pro-business platform that envisions America as a land of opportunity. Though her Dallas suburb is a traditionally conservative district, President Trump is not popular there. So Ms. del Rosal doesn’t talk about him. “I won’t be defined by national politics because all politics are local and the things that impact voters and folks the most are the bread-and-butter issues of state and city politics,” she told me.
But Mr. Trump also has loyal Hispanic supporters running for state and national office. Mike Guevara, who is also running for the Texas Statehouse, representing the Austin area, recently rode at the head of a “Trump Train” — a caravan of vehicles flying Trump flags — and said he can’t imagine “why a Hispanic wouldn’t vote for Trump.” He boiled his support for the president down to three issues — “God, guns and gas” — and said his campaign blends local and national politics because his potential constituents are afraid that Joe Biden will take away their guns.
Monica de la Cruz, another Trump loyalist, hopes to win a seat in Congress representing the heavily Hispanic, traditionally Democratic Rio Grande Valley. She has supported Mr. Trump’s border wall and immigration crackdown, and her district was the epicenter of the family-separation and child-detention tragedy. Border Patrol officers, she told me, were protecting children because many were being trafficked for sex and the adults they came with weren’t their parents.
These candidates hold diverse beliefs and diverge on the question of whether to embrace or distance themselves from President Trump. But together they represent the belief held by Republican leaders in Texas that the future of their party depends on Hispanics and other communities of color. They encourage them to run for office and promote them within party ranks, hoping they can encourage others across the state to join the party.
When Will Hurd, a Black congressman from Texas, announced his retirement, he warned that “if the Republican Party doesn’t start looking like America and resonating with all Americans, then there won’t be a Republican Party in America.” Allen West, the state’s new, Black party chairman, responded by saying it’ll be an important part of his mission to “reconnect” the Republican Party with “Black and Hispanic communities.”
Republicans in many other states will have no choice but to follow Texas’ lead.
Even if Democrats win in Texas this year, there are no permanent victories in a democracy. Both parties, and new ones that could emerge, will claim to represent Hispanics and other nonwhite Americans. It may come to pass that a majority-minority future will lead to more Democratic victories, but Republicans surely won’t let that happen without a fight.
Geraldo L. Cadava is a professor of history and Latina and Latino studies at Northwestern.