By David Thomsen,
On November 8, 1994, George W. Bush defeated incumbent Democrat Ann Richards in Texas’ gubernatorial election. Counting last Tuesday, there have since been 94 statewide elections held in Texas, and Republicans have won all 94 of them. The current Democratic drought is the longest of any state, but Texas Democrats have some reason for optimism. A significant event in Governor Richards’ rise to power was her stirring keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, GA. Twenty-four years later, another Democratic Texan, representing a rapidly growing minority group, gave a keynote speech at the DNC. Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, delivered the type of uplifting speech capable of turning a charismatic politician into a star. His last words had barely escaped his mouth before people were ready to anoint him as the next Democratic candidate for governor of Texas.
Mayor Castro represents a growing Hispanic population that is expected to eclipse whites as the most populous ethnic group in the state by 2020. In Mayor Castro, Democrats believe that they have a face to put on the surging wave of Hispanic voters that will turn Texas blue within the next decade. Based on these demographics, it seems likely that Texas’ political makeup will look more like New Mexico’s or Colorado’s than Utah’s or Oklahoma’s in the near future. That is to say, Texas will become another southwestern swing state and will not remain the GOP’s big-state answer to California and New York for very long. For Democrats, this narrative is tough to resist. Despite being able to count on Texas’ 38 electoral votes, Mitt Romney was pummeled in the Electoral College. If Texas were to become a swing-state, the electoral calculus for a Republican nominee would be even more perilous.
The notion that a demographic change would put Texas in the electoral spotlight is not new. In 2004, Texas became the fourth minority-majority state in the union; joining New Mexico, Hawaii, and California. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population increased by 42 percent, and now makes up 38 percent of the state’s population. In May of 2010, an article in the Texas Tribune asked, “Can Barack Obama Win Texas in 2012?” At the time this was a valid question, but it seems silly given that Mitt Romney carried the state by a 16-point margin on November 6. In both 2008 and 2012, the President carried the other three minority-majority states but lost in Texas by a substantial spread. The question now is why.
A large part of the answer lies in the state’s voting record. Historically, Texans have ranked near the bottom in voter participation, and this election was no different with Texas ranking 46th out of 50 states. In the last three elections, including the 2010 midterms, Texas’ voter participation rate has been significantly less than the national average. According to Census data, voter turnout in the United States was 41.8 percent in 2010. In Texas, just 31.4 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot. In 2008, 56.1 percent of eligible Texans voted, compared to the national average of 63.6 percent. Much of this difference can be attributed to the fact that Hispanic Texans vote at a much lower rate than they do in other parts of the country. In 2008, 65 percent of white voters in Texas cast their ballot, compared to 66 percent of white voters across the country. African Americans in Texas voted at the exact same rate as African Americans nationwide. The difference was with Hispanic voters. In 2008, national Hispanic voter turnout was 50 percent. In Texas it was only 38 percent.
This last statistic is even more striking given the fact that nearly 20 percent of the nation’s 52 million Hispanics call Texas home. It is also a statistic that is unlikely to change in the near future. Sixty-nine percent of Hispanic Texans were born in the U.S., with a median age of only 19 years old, compared to 38 years old for Hispanics born outside the country. The systemic problem of voter apathy makes a little more sense given that 22 percent of voting age Hispanics lives in poverty, and their median income is 43 percent less than non-Hispanic whites. Education rates bear the same kind of results. Impoverished Americans with less educational opportunities generally vote at a much lower rate than those that are more affluent. Until the overall quality of life for Texas’ Hispanics improves, their turnout rate is unlikely to change. It will certainly be a challenge for any Democrat to overcome these types of trends in just a few election cycles.
Both of Texas’ senators are Republicans; as are 24 out of its 36 members in the House of Representatives. Republicans dominate the state legislature as well, with 19 out of 31 seats in the State Senate and 95 out of 150 seats in the State House. How can a minority-majority state, with such a large Hispanic population consistently elect a broad majority of Republican candidates? Much of the answer follows from the voter turnout analysis above, but that does not account for the whole story. There is another trend that is perhaps even more distressing for Democrats. Hispanic representation in its Congressional delegation is the second highest in the country, and the group’s representation within the state is increasing. However, these Hispanics are not all Democrats. Two Democratic Hispanic state representatives, Aaron Pena and J.M. Lozano, switched their allegiances to the Republican Party in the last two years. New Republican Senator-elect Ted Cruz is also Hispanic.
The Republican Party in general ignores and sometimes demonizes would-be Hispanic voters. However, Republicans in Texas have made a concerted effort to attract more Hispanic voters and candidates. At a press conference in July, state Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri said, “There will not be a future Republican Party of Texas as a majority party unless the Republican Party of Texas is successful in getting a very high percentage of the Hispanic vote.” The state’s amended party platform providing for a guest-worker program for immigrants reflects this knowledge. Texans may want to protect the border, but many of its businesses depend on those who have crossed it. According to Bob Price, the director of Café Con Leche Republicans, an organization developed to create better relations with the Hispanic community, the GOP’s platform will create “an effective guest worker program which will help businesses in finding legal workers for their employment needs.” There is evidence to suggest that Republican outreach in Texas is working; 46 percent of Hispanics identify as conservative compared to just 18 percent who identify themselves as liberal, with 36 percent not identifying with either label.
Another important factor likely to prevent Texas from becoming a swing state in the near term is the fact that the national Democratic Party has failed to commit the resources necessary to make Texas competitive. At a July fundraiser in San Antonio, his seventh in the state since taking office, President Obama asserted, “You’re not considered one of those battleground states… But that’s going to change.” However, according to former Democratic Lieutenant Governor and national party fundraiser Ben Barnes, the Democratic Party’s actions have not matched its leader’s rhetoric, “I don’t think the state party has been funded enough to be a powerful, functional organization.” The state’s senatorial election bears this out. Republican Ted Cruz raised a whopping $11.8 million compared to Democrat Paul Sadler’s meager total of $497,391. Until the Democratic Party is willing to put its money where its mouth is, Democratic candidates for statewide elections will continue to lose at an alarming rate.
Julian Castro represents the changing face of the Democratic Party and the changing face of America as a country. The rise of the Hispanic vote has no doubt given Democrats a firmer foundation for which to contest elections at the local, state, and national levels. But the rising tide has not yet lifted every boat. Texas Hispanics simply do not vote at high enough rates to dim Texas’ bright red tint.
Despite their efforts, the Texas Democratic Party has thus far failed to capitalize on the state’s minority-majority status. Perhaps Mayor Castro is the politician the Democrats need to turn the state blue—as it was for almost a century until the 1980s—but the state’s demographics will not be the only driving factor. For Texas to be competitive, more of the national party’s resources must be committed to the state. For their part, deep-pocketed Texas Democrats must keep their money in house as well. The party must consistently engage Hispanics at the local and state levels in Texas and must remain committed even if the prospects for immediate electoral success are dim. The Texas Democratic Party recently made Gilberto Hinojosa the organization’s first Hispanic chairman. This is an important signal that must be backed by a greater allocation of human and monetary capital within Hispanic communities.
The Obama re-election campaign was so successful because it recognized the importance of neighbor-to-neighbor contact and was willing to devote significant resources to this community-centric organization. If Democrats have learned anything about today’s electorate, it should be that Hispanics are more willing than ever to help put a Democrat in the White House. The sheer number of Hispanics in Texas will not make the state competitive on its own, but a consistent ground game could make a huge difference. When that happens, a Democratic Texas will be much closer to becoming a reality.