Could Latino Voters Turn Deep-Red Texas Democratic by 2020?

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Some Republicans worry that the party, which goes to the polls Tuesday, could suffer from alienating the state's fastest-growing demographic.

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HOUSTON -- Jacob Monty looks at the demographics of his state of Texas and does not like what he's seeing. Though the Lone Star state, which holds its Republican primary Tuesday, is a sure thing for Mitt Romney in November, it could be majority Latino by 2030, and those Latinos are voting overwhelmingly Democrat.

"The future of the Republican Party lies in keeping Texas as a Republican state. And if we allow our numbers to slip in Texas, we run the risk of losing the firewall that keeps the Republican Party as a viable option," he said.

A Latino of Mexican descent, the Houston attorney sits on the board of directors of a new organization called Hispanic Republicans of Texas. It was co-founded two years ago by George P. Bush, son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and the nephew of former president George W. Bush. The group's goal is to recruit and train Latinos to run for local office -- as Republicans.

"Hispanics are conservative on the main issues that define conservative voters," said Monty, ticking off the reasons the GOP should have appeal to the group. "Religion, entrepreneurship... We believe in the free enterprise system. We have the lowest unionization rate than any other group in America, lower than African Americans and Anglos."

The high-water mark for Republican Hispanics in Texas was 2004, when 49 percent of Texas Hispanics voted to reelect President Bush. That number slipped to 35 percent of Texas Latinos voting for Republican presidential candidate John McCain four years later.

"Regrettably, it's been a disaster since 2004, primarily because of the immigration rhetoric that has been spewed out by the Republican Party," said Monty, shaking his head. "Republicans need to wake up on this issue, because if they don't, if their Hispanic numbers don't improve, we're going to become a minority party."

Monty worries that the Republicans could lose Texas by 2020, an unimaginable thought today.

It's not just immigration that's become a problem when trying to court Latinos. Last year, the Texas legislature passed a law that requires voters to have a photo ID. Many Hispanics argue the requirement discriminates against minorities, who are less likely to have a driver's license and can have a harder time getting one, especially in parts of rural Texas.

The Department of Justice agreed and blocked the law earlier this year. Citing state data, the department found that perhaps 304,000 Hispanic registered voters could be affected by an ID requirement. Registered Hispanic voters could be as much as 120 percent less likely to have ID.

Supporters of the voter ID law say the requirement was necessary to combat voter fraud. Yet the Texas attorney general's office reported fewer than five cases of "voter impersonation" during the 2008 and 2010 elections, among some six million votes cast. The case is currently under appeal.

"It's a testament to the complete lack of respect to the Latino vote, that they would even dare to introduce something like that against such a large demographic," said Rey Guerra, a young political activist and mechanical engineer I met at a non-partisan get-out-the-vote barbeque in a heavily Latino neighborhood in southwest Houston. About 150 people came to the barbeque dubbed "Tacos and Votes."

Guerra, and others, were also upset with a Tea Party group called True The Vote, which is calling for volunteers to monitor voting stations on election day.

"It's going back to the poll tax. It's that same idea of suppression, and saying well we're going to have poll watchers there watching you cast your ballot," said Deyadira Trevino, who argues that True The Vote is trying to intimidate immigrants like her mom, who don't have the strongest grasp of the English language or background of American election practices, from voting.

True The Vote did not respond to interview requests.

Latinos I talked to were also offended by an "anti-sanctuary cities" bill passed by the GOP-dominated Texas senate last year. It calls for restricted state funding for cities that prohibit employees from questioning the immigration status of people they detain or arrest. The bill stalled in the state house as the legislative session was ending.

"Fifty percent of the youth in this state are Latino. If you don't court them, if you don't get out of your silk suits and ties, and actually engage with people, things are not going to work out for anyone."

Then there is the state budget. Last year, the Republican-led state legislature cut the state's two-year education budget by roughly $5.4 billion, a 5.5 percent reduction. Texas school districts have been cancelling school bus services, removing classes, and laying off teachers. The Houston group Children At Risk says there are 10,717 fewer teachers in Texas this year, although it says it's difficult to estimate how much of the reduction is due to budget cuts.

Latinos railed against the education cuts, as Latino school children disproportionately rely on public education in Texas. After the cuts, Governor Rick Perry reaffirmed his commitment to not raise taxes and refused to tap into the state's rainy day fund.

Add it all up, it's a sharply different playbook than what Texas Republicans have run in the past.

"What Republicans, particularly the more pragmatic ones, have tried to do is a dual strategy: Keep Hispanics from having an issue around which to mobilize, thereby keeping Hispanic turnout low, and not doing anything that pushes Hispanics who normally would vote Republican to vote Democratic," said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.

The strategy worked in the past. Jones said Texas Hispanics are about 25 percent less likely to vote than Texas Anglos. Compare that with California, where Latinos vote about 10 percent less often than Anglos.

Jones also said a weak Democratic Party in Texas and the lack of a charismatic Hispanic leader in Dallas or Houston have contributed to the low numbers of Latino voters. The result, Jones said, is that Texas politicians haven't given Latinos the attention their numbers deserve.

"We saw that in our most recent mayoral campaign [in Houston], where neither of the two principle candidates really paid all that much attention to Hispanic voters," said Jones. "They realized that Hispanics represented a very small share of the overall electorate, and so it wasn't worth their time and money to really try and reach out to Hispanics."

This, despite Latinos making up 44 percent of Houston's population.

But Latinos in Texas may be waking up. San Antonio, the state's second-largest city, has a 37-year-old Latino mayor, Julián Castro. His twin brother Joaquín Castro is a state lawmaker who is running for Congress. Both are mentioned as potential future occupants of Pennsylvania Avenue. They're both Democrats.

At the barbeque in Houston, people like Mario Salinas, a young, charismatic Latino political activist, were fed up.

"The time has come for the politicians to realize that if they do not court the Latino youth -- 50 percent of the youth in this state are Latino -- if you don't court them, if you don't get out of your silk suits and ties, and actually engage with people, things are not going to work out for anyone."

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Jason Margolis is a reporter with the public radio program "PRI's The World."

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