Why Texas Could Remain a Republican Stronghold for Another Generation

The midterms reveal Democrats have more work to do if they want to turn Texas blue.

Battleground Texas is determined to make Texas a Democratic battleground, but the midterm elections prove Republicans aren't ceding Latino voters in Texas to Democrats without a fight.

It's no surprise that Texas Republicans easily won statewide races in an election cycle when President Obama's approval rating was underwater and low turnout favored the GOP. But the highlight for Republicans is that statewide candidates gained ground with Hispanic voters, a group that Battleground Texas was counting on to turn Texas from red to blue.

Battleground's founder and former Obama campaign operative Jeremy Bird had long pointed out that if the 4.2 million eligible Latino voters in Texas were all registered to vote, and the majority showed up to the polls, the demographic shift would be enough to empower Democrats in the state. That assumed, however, that Texas Republicans were not going to make a successful play for the Latino vote.

The Republican Party of Texas, after all, voted over the summer to no longer support in-state tuition for immigrants who'd been brought to the U.S. illegally as children. And, the state's two Republican senators made a statement on where they stood on immigration when they voted against a comprehensive bill in the Senate that would have given deportation relief to millions.

Still, Republicans in Texas fought this cycle on what has long been thought of as Democratic turf. The Republican National Committee hired seven full-time staffers from Latino communities to manage outreach efforts from San Antonio to Dallas, and volunteers across the country made contact with 850,000 Latino voters over the phone and face-to-face.

What Republicans found in Texas was that even as the national party had struggled over the years to win Latino voters, showing up often and early in Latino communities was a good way to begin to repair the party's fractured relationship with Hispanic constituents.

"This election is a sign that we absolutely can make gains," says Jenny Korn, an outreach director for Latino communities at the Republican National Committee.

Governor-elect Greg Abbott won with 44 percent of the Latino vote, and Sen. John Cornyn won 48 percent, both improvements over the 38 percent Gov. Rick Perry earned when he was elected in 2011 for his third term.

Republican strategists in the state point out tha  Abbott made 17 visits to the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley during his campaign and ran months' worth of ads featuring his Latina wife and mother-in-law. His campaign ran his first Spanish-language spot during the World Cup game between Mexico and Brazil.

"The Latino voters cannot be taken for granted. The right candidate with the right message can make a difference," says Jorge Lima, the policy director for the LIBRE Institute, a nonprofit that promotes free-market principles in the Hispanic Community.

Another factor, Republicans say, that helped Abbott win Latino voters and undermined Democratic efforts in the state, was the candidate Abbott was running against. His Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, had burst onto the national scene as a fierce defender of abortion rights. Latino voters, however, tend to be much more socially conservative than other Democratic constituencies. While reproductive rights might motivate millennials and single women voters, it's not an issue that drives Latinos to the polls for Democrats in droves.

"The results were partly a backlash against that blatant liberalism from the Davis campaign and from Battleground Texas," Texas-based Republican strategist Ray Sullivan says. "The message she delivered did not play with Hispanic Texans."

It wasn't just that Latinos were voting in higher numbers for Republicans, however. Many of the voters whom Battleground Texas boasted it had registered did not even show up.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Latino voters made up just under 20 percent of the midterm electorate, roughly the same as their turnout pattern in 2010.

Some Democrats have blamed voter-ID laws, while others have pointed to voter apathy and frustration with the president. Obama has promised immigration reform since the start of his presidency, but Latino voters still have not seen broad action.

Battleground Texas contends that its losses last week are just a temporary setback.

"Republicans (and even some Democrats) are calling Battleground Texas a 'failure,' " Jenn Brown, Battleground's executive director, wrote in a memo Tuesday on the group's website. "I know that the losses last week were tough, and there has been a lot of negativity in the aftermath of the election. But I want you to look forward with me. Because we have work to do."

Brown pledged Battleground Texas will undergo an "extensive qualitative assessment" where leaders will contact voters who stayed home this election. Battleground Texas plans to analyze how it could have better motivated Democratic constituencies to get out to the polls.

But Republicans won't abandon their efforts on the ground in Texas, either. The RNC has pledged to stay the course in the Latino communities ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

"I think Battleground Texas came in speaking very boldly about what they were going to accomplish. They were not even close," Korn says. "I don't think they are going to be successful. All of our infrastructure is going to stay in all of our states."

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect Battleground Texas' political timeline for Texas.