Competing for the Latino Vote in Texas Part II: The Democrats’ Dilemma

By Loren McArthur, Deputy Director, Civic Engagement, NCLR

Texas State Capitol. Photo: Davidlohr Bueso
Texas State Capitol. Photo: Davidlohr Bueso

This two-part blog series explores the challenges and opportunities that a rising Hispanic electorate presents to both the GOP and Democrats. You can read Part I here.

The conventional narrative is that Democrats need only wait for the rising tide of Hispanic population growth to lift their political fortunes in Texas. But unless Democrats do a better job at mobilizing Hispanic voters, they may end up waiting for a long time. Just 39 percent of eligible Hispanic voters in Texas participated in the 2012 elections. The Center for American Progress projects that there will be more than 900,000 new eligible Hispanic voters in Texas by 2016. However, if Hispanics and non-Hispanics participate at rates similar to 2012, Latino vote share will essentially remain flat at 22 percent of the Texas electorate. Democrats can bend the curve on these trend lines, but doing so will require a concerted effort to reach out to Hispanic voters and speak to the issues important to the Hispanic community.

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Many factors contribute to low Hispanic participation rates in Texas, but one that looms large is the lack of competitive races in districts where Latinos reside. As a result both of gerrymandering and geography, Latino voters are packed into just nine Hispanic opportunity districts on the congressional level. Virtually none of these districts are competitive. The absence of competitive races has translated into a lack of investment in Hispanic voter outreach. In 2012, just 25 percent of Hispanic voters in Texas reported being contacted by a campaign, political party, or community organization regarding voting. By comparison, in the swing states of Colorado and Nevada, 59 percent and 51 percent of Hispanic voters were contacted, respectively; and Latino participation rates were greater than 50 percent in both states. If Democrats want Texas to resemble Colorado and Nevada, they must make similar investments in Hispanic outreach.

Mobilize2Vote_shareimage_2014Democrats must also provide substantive policy proposals that can galvanize Hispanics, who vote based on issues rather than party affiliation. Obama’s decision to stop deporting DREAMers is a good case study: 59 percent of Hispanic voters in Texas reported that they were more enthusiastic about his candidacy as a result of the policy. In 2014, health and education issues provide opportunities for Democrats in Texas to distinguish themselves from Republicans and attract Hispanic support and participation. In 2011, the Republican-controlled state legislature cut $5.4 billion in public education funding, with a disproportionate impact on Hispanics, who represent 48 percent of all public school students in Texas. Governor Perry’s decision to block Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act has denied health insurance to 583,000 Hispanics.

Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor, may be the Democrats’ best hope for galvanizing Hispanic voters in 2014. Van de Putte is Hispanic and a self-described “sixth generation Tejana.” As a state senator, Van de Putte has been a champion on issues important to Hispanics, including education and Medicaid expansion. In contrast, Dan Patrick, a potential Republican opponent, has used campaign rhetoric demonizing Hispanic immigrants, repeatedly calling for an end to the “illegal invasion from Mexico.” A general election contest between Van de Putte and Patrick would provide a real contrast for Latinos that could spur Hispanic participation.

Candidate for Texas Governor, State Sen. Wendy Davis (D) Photo: Wikipedia
Candidate for Texas Governor, State Sen. Wendy Davis (D) Photo: Wikipedia

In the governor’s race, Democrat Wendy Davis has made education a centerpiece of her campaign, an agenda that could resonate with Hispanic voters. Davis performed poorly in the Democratic primary in heavily Hispanic border counties; however, she has since stepped up her Hispanic outreach, making campaign appearances in a number of border communities. To attract and mobilize Hispanic voters, Davis must intensify her Hispanic outreach and prioritize issues important to the Hispanic community.

For the moment, gubernatorial candidates from both parties appear to recognize the importance of winning Hispanic voters: the Republican nominee, Greg Abbott, has declared his goal of surpassing George Bush’s record for Hispanic voter support. Having both Democrats and Republicans compete for the Hispanic vote is good for the Hispanic community. A growing and engaged Hispanic electorate should be welcomed by all those in Texas who want a strong economy, good schools, and healthy communities, since those are priorities shared by Hispanic voters.

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