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Texas Primary Shows Limits to Hispanic Clout

Paul Kane wrote a must-read story in Thursday's Washington Post on the just-completed Texas primaries, concluding that Hispanic voters aren't taking advantage of their numbers to elect their own to Congress. It's something we noted in last week's magazine, and offers a warning sign for the president's re-election team too, which is reliant on high levels of Hispanic turnout in the November general election to win states like Florida, Nevada, and Colorado.

Tuesday's election results in Texas illustrated why the increase in Hispanic population isn't translating -- at least not yet -- into increased representation. Latino growth fueled the state's overall population growth, allowing the Lone Star State to gain four House seats during reapportionment - the most in the country. Two-thirds of that growth came from the Hispanic population. But while 38 percent of voters are Hispanic, it's likely that only six of the state's 36 House representatives (14 percent) will be Latino in 2013. That would be a lower rate of representation for Hispanics than in the state's current delegation, despite expectations that 2012 would be a watershed year for Hispanic candidates.

In the primary, Hispanic candidates suffered a trifecta of stinging defeats, thanks to low levels of Latino participation in the Democratic primaries. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the influential former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was upset by Beto O'Rourke, an upstart, white former El Paso city councilor. Reyes' loss makes it more likely that the number of Hispanics in the state's delegation will remain at six, counteracting the gain from the newly created TX-34 Gulf Coast seat, where attorney Filemon Vela is the favorite after a strong showing in the initial primary.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, running in the newly-drawn majority-Hispanic 35th District around Austin and San Antonio, handily defeated Bexar County tax collector Sylvia Romo. She lacked the resources of the incumbent, but hoped to mount a more competitive campaign by appealing to voters along ethnic lines - in a district where 60 percent of the voting population is Hispanic. Instead, she lost in a landslide, 73 to 21 percent.

The O'Rourke and Doggett wins demonstrate that the Hispanic "candidate of choice" is not always a Hispanic candidate. A candidate in a majority-Latino district can't win with 73 percent, like Doggett did, unless they carry a healthy number of those voters. In the 16th District, we have some harder data: Students from El Paso's Coronado High School conducted early voting and election-day exit polling, which you can take with a grain of salt but shouldn't discount. In the exit poll, Hispanic voters comprised two-thirds of the electorate but only preferred Reyes by nine percentage points. The incumbent ceased to be the overwhelming candidate of choice of the district's majority population, and he lost because of it.

Perhaps most significantly, state Rep. Marc Veasey, who is African-American, finished well ahead of former state Rep. Domingo Garcia in the first round of balloting, 37 to 25 percent, and is favored to prevail in the July 31 runoff in the 33rd District. Garcia wasn't able to take advantage of the district's sizable Hispanic population, which makes up nearly two-thirds of the district (and 39 percent of its voting-eligible population). Just over 18,000 registered Democrats showed up to vote, an anemic turnout level far below the rates in other contested majority-Latino districts that suggests many Hispanic voters stayed home.

These races give us some indication of how the national Democratic effort to turn out Hispanic population growth into Hispanic voter turnout is going. The lack of growth - this year -- in Texas's Hispanic representation isn't a total indictment of Latino voting power; in the cases of O'Rourke and Doggett, Hispanic voters were either split or they got their man. But there are signs that many Hispanic voters the Southwestern states of Arizona, Colorado and Nevada display similar voting patterns to the residents of Texas's 33rd District -- namely, that their voting levels lag behind their numbers. In those battleground states, it's imperative for the president's get-out-the-vote effort to identify and turn out these less-committed voters.

In that Texas district, the opportunity to expand ethnic ranks in Congress wasn't enough to draw Latino voters to the polls. It suggests the Obama campaign could face a formidable task in motivating them come November.