With Perry out, Hispanic Republicans in Texas wonder if Gingrich is the best choice


WASHINGTON – When Texas Gov. Rick Perry left the race for the GOP presidential nomination, he might have walked off with Republican prospects to win the Hispanic vote in Texas and nationwide.

Some Hispanic Republicans active in the Lone Star State find Newt Gingrich, endorsed by Perry on his way out, has an appealing message. But some experts don’t think Hispanic voters will coalesce around any one candidate because of their ethnicity.

In any case, political observers doubt Hispanics will find a GOP candidate who stands out like Perry did with his moderate stance on immigration and credibility from spending time in the Hispanic community.

“He understands what we’re about. He understands our issues,” said Linda Vega, an immigration lawyer and GOP blogger based in Houston. “So he was our primary choice.”

Candidates ignoring this growing group of voters do so at their own peril.

More than 21 million Latinos are at least 18 years old and U.S. citizens, said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.

“That’s a record number and has grown steadily over the last few election cycles,” Lopez said.

Record numbers of Hispanics also are voting, he said.

In 2008, 9.7 million — half of eligible Latino voters — went to the polls. About two-thirds of Hispanic Republican voters identify with or lean toward Democrats.

In Texas, Hispanic population growth led to four more congressional districts and an epic battle in the courts among minority groups, political parties and the state to sort out what Texas political maps will look like in 2012 elections.

With Perry out, Vega’s focus shifted.

“We are clearly looking at Newt Gingrich as a potential candidate that we like,” said Vega, a board member for Latinos Ready to Vote, a conservative voter registration and political education group.

George Antuna Jr., co-founder of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas Political Action Committee, said Gingrich’s message on immigration has been something Hispanics can embrace.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s comments on the subject, though, are “concerning,” said Antuna of Schertz just northeast of San Antonio.

But in one campaign conflict, Romney accused Gingrich of referring to Spanish as the “language of the ghetto.”

Vega said Romney got it wrong.

Gingrich was making a reasonable point that not learning English meant fewer opportunities in the United States, she said.

Immigration is an important issue for Hispanics, Vega said.

“Latinos see it as this: If you talk badly about immigration, you’re talking badly about the Latino community,” she said.

Antuna pointed to the economy as the premier issue for Hispanics.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said. “I honestly believe that this year Hispanics, like every other ethnic group is going to be voting their pocketbook.”

A Pew Hispanic Center survey conducted late last year showed jobs, education and health care as the top three issues for about 50 percent of Hispanics polled.

About one-third felt immigration was extremely important – along with the federal budget deficit and taxes.

But 42 percent agreed there should be a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants compared to 24 percent of the general population.

Texas Tech University political science professor Craig Goodman said Hispanics have historically been cross-pressured on economic and social issues.

“If economics are the No. 1 issue among Latino voters, I think that’s where Gov. Romney makes his strongest case to Latino voters,” Goodman said.

If social issues are high on the Hispanic agenda, it could be good for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, he said.

McMurry University political science professor Paul Fabrizio doesn’t think Hispanics have coalesced into a political force outside of a few geographic areas.

“To me, Hispanic voters still have not emerged as a political power in this country like African-American voters are,” Fabrizio said. “It might be that they are two big and too varied to ever do that.”

Mexican-Americans and Cuban-Americans, for instance, can all identify as Hispanic, but they have varied interests in the political arena, he said.

This story was originally posted on Reporternews.com

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