Lone Star Blues

The New York Times - Richard Parker
February 20, 2013

THE 2012 presidential race in Texas might as well have been in Mexico, so little did the Democrats campaign for the state’s 38 electoral votes.

Yet during a fund-raising swing on a sweltering July day, President Obama let a political secret out of the bag for his rich donors. “You’re not considered one of the battleground states,” he said, “although that’s going to be changing soon.”

Democrats are champing at the bit to turn Texas blue. “People are now looking at Texas and saying: ‘That’s where we need to make our next investment. That’s where the next opportunity lies,’ ” one Democratic state senator told Politico. There’s even optimistic chatter of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s capturing the state in 2016 if she runs for president.

But it’s going to take more than money or a Clinton. The only constant in politics may be change, but turning Texas blue — or even purple — is going to be a lot harder than most folks imagine. It will require hard work, political infrastructure and a vision of Hispanic voters that goes beyond immigration reform.

Texas was reliably Democratic for more than a century, from Reconstruction through the Lyndon B. Johnson years. Johnson ably — albeit cynically and sometimes illegally — harnessed the Hispanic vote to keep his more reactionary opponents off balance in primaries.

But the liberal 1960s drove white conservatives into what was once a minuscule Republican Party. With the help of Rust Belt migrants in the 1970s, Republican strength grew under John G. Tower, Bill Clements and the elder George Bush.

In 1994, Mr. Bush’s son George pushed that indomitable Texas Democrat, Ann W. Richards, from the governor’s office, after which his consigliere, Karl Rove, engineered a generation of Republican domination. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, though strong in southern Texas and in some cities, withered as a statewide organization.

Now, though, Democrats are hopeful that the immovable object — the overwhelmingly male, conservative Republican power structure — is about to meet the unstoppable force: demography. Texas is home to 9.5 million Hispanics, about 38 percent of the population, just seven points behind the non-Hispanic white population. In 2020, Hispanics will begin to surpass the white population and will outright dwarf it in 2030.

But the Hispanic vote is not monolithically Democratic, nationally or in Texas. In 2004, 40 percent of Texas Hispanics backed George W. Bush for re-election. In 2010, Rick Perry got almost 40 percent of the Hispanic vote statewide, and nearly half in South Texas, the purported base for Democratic growth.

Then there is the problem of Democratic infrastructure: there hasn’t been one for years. In 1995, Ron Kirk forged a coalition of Hispanics and African-Americans to become the first black mayor of Dallas, but he could not do the same statewide; he lost a Senate race to John Cornyn in 2002.

That same year, the millionaire oilman Tony Sanchez, a Democrat running for governor, had money, a Mexican heritage and an ability to appeal to Mexican-American voters. For it, he still lost 35 percent of the Hispanic vote to Mr. Perry, who claimed the governor’s mansion.

But the biggest problem is voter participation. Only about half of eligible Hispanic voters show up nationwide; this edged up slightly in 2012 to 53 percent. In Texas, just 4.1 million Hispanics are registered to vote, and only about half of them make it to the voting booth.

Why? There are a variety of explanations, including cultural ones. It’s pretty easy to feel disenfranchised by a political system that talks about you as an “immigrant” or, worse, an “alien.”

The Democrats have a few things working for them. The national Republican Party and its immigrant-bashing tendencies is one, of course. And it has hitched its outreach wagon to two senators — Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas — who are Cuban-American, a difference that may seem minor to non-Hispanics but that significantly diminishes their appeal to Texas’ Latinos, who are primarily of Mexican heritage. (Indeed, the Canadian-born Mr. Cruz actually got fewer Hispanic votes last year than Mr. Cornyn did in 2008.)

It may be that the demographic wave makes all this beside the point, and that increasing turnout among Hispanics just a little might make a big difference.

But that requires ground troops, voter education and turnout efforts over a multicycle campaign. It also requires that Democrats stop assuming they’re going to lose. “If we start treating this as a purple state,” said Matt Glazer of the activist group Progress Texas, “we would be one that much sooner.”

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