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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Reuters

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.

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

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