On October 3, just 14 weeks after Wendy Davis catapulted into the national spotlight with a pro-choice filibuster, the Texas State Senator announced her plans to run for Governor in 2014. Democrats immediately cheered Davis as the first viable left-wing candidate in a generation with a credible shot at ending the Republican Party’s monopoly on the Texas Governor’s Mansion.
One group in particular, Battleground Texas, is vehemently supporting Davis for Governor. Founded by Jeremy Bird, the National Field Director of the Obama 2012 campaign, Battleground Texas is a grassroots Political Action Committee created with the goal of turning Texas blue – that is, shifting the Lone Star State away from Republican control and ushering in an age of Democratic relevancy.
Why is the Democratic Party focusing on such a thoroughly conservative state? After all, Republicans hold 23 of the 36 House of Representatives spots, both United States Senator seats, decisive control of the Texas legislature, and every statewide elected office – from Governor to Agriculture Commissioner. During an interview on The Colbert Report, Bird proclaimed that his organization’s confidence that Texas “is a state that is changing.” Stephen Colbert, a comedian and political pundit, jokingly responded, “What do you mean these demographic shifts are happening? That’s just liberal euphemisms for Hispanics and black people.”
While Colbert surely meant the comment to be satirical, it identifies what makes Texas so appealing to the Democratic Party. In Texas, the fastest growing state in the country, 72.7 percent of new residents between April 2010 and July 2011 were Hispanic. The state currently possesses 38 electoral votes, and it is projected to receive an additional three electoral votes after the 2020 census reapportionment. These gains are largely attributed to an influx of immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Democrats believe the voting power of these new migrant communities is largely untapped due to low registration and turnout rates among Latinos. In the 2008 presidential election, only 54 percent of Latino citizens in Texas were registered to vote, and only 35 percent actually went to the polls to cast a ballot. These figures are remarkably low compared to the 60 percent turnout rate among the 70 percent of registered Texas voters. If Hispanic were galvanized to vote in greater numbers for liberal candidates, Democrats believe they would inevitably achieve greater success in red and purple states.
Yet, new immigrant voters are not necessarily a perfect fit for the Democratic Party. Laura Barraclough, a Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale University, told The Politic that the Latino vote is more precarious than Democrats imagine.
“The interesting thing about Latinos is they tend to be economically very liberal, but socially they tend to be very conservative,” Barraclough said. “The Democratic Party assumes that immigrants are theirs, but they are not inherently left.”
Republicans have been slow to realize that they too have an opportunity to broaden their voter base as more Hispanics become United States citizens. Following the 2012 elections, the Pew Research Center reported that President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, while Mitt Romney secured a lackluster 27 percent. Although Hispanics had trended Democratic in prior elections, Republicans were confident that they would capture more of their votes following President Obama’s divisive first term.
In the wake of this electoral blowout, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has instituted Hispanic outreach initiatives in contested states such as Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. GOP officials such as Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst have attempted to gain traction by advertising themselves through Spanish-language media on the television channel Conexión Texas.
In its 2012 “Growth and Opportunity Project” self-assessment report, the RNC contended that Republicans “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), John McCain (R-AZ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) took this recommendation to heart when they allied with four Democratic Senators on the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” (S.744). The bill, which passed the Senate in June 2013 with a bipartisan vote of 68-32 but has not been introduced in the House, would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented persons. While passing S.744 in the Senate was a positive step for the GOP to court immigrant voters, support for immigration reform is by no means universal among Republicans.
Republicans casted every single one of the “Nay” votes in opposition to S.744 in the Senate, and the bill continues to struggle in the House because of right-wing opposition to the prospect of alleged amnesty for undocumented persons. This divide in the GOP transmits an uncertain signal to immigrant voters who are reluctant to back a party with inconsistent support for immigration. The split within the conservative party on immigration may be explained by competing interests between House Republicans focused solely on their districts and nationally-minded Republicans.
“In individual districts, especially gerrymandered Republican districts, there are low levels of immigrant populations, so Congressmen do not have the same incentives as someone who is running for president,” said Margaret Peters, a Yale University Professor who specializes in the politics of migration. In other words, some House Republicans are less likely to adopt immigration reform if they think it will displease their disproportionately conservative constituents.
One example is Representative Tom Price of Georgia’s 6th Congressional District – an affluent seat in which over 80 percent of residents are white. Price has little incentive to support a more progressive national agenda that would upset his mostly right-wing supporters. Although the RNC is tasked with encouraging policy positions in the best interest of the national GOP, elected officials remain predominantly focused on their own districts.
Peters foresees “a larger change in the national level than on the local level in terms of immigration reform” and predicts that intraparty fighting among Republicans on the issue of immigration will continue.
Immigration policy, of course, is not the only place where the GOP can improve among Hispanics. Many Republican Party leaders are actively recruiting more minority or minority-friendly candidates. The possible presidential campaign of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the child of Cuban migrants, demonstrates a Republican effort to promote candidates who they believe will appeal to immigrant voters. However, the popularity of freshman Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favorite of Cuban heritage who gained fame after his 21-hour filibuster to defund Obamacare, signals more trouble for the GOP. Cruz embodies a dualism counterproductive to the Republican Party: Party leaders hope he can attract immigrant voters, but as a staunch conservative, he is also reluctant to bend his anti-immigration views. (Cruz was one of the 32 Senators to vote “Nay” on S.744.) Following his prominent role in the recent budget shutdown, Cruz is viewed by many pundits as less likely to embrace the reform the GOP is seeking.
Without a doubt, the stakes are high. When Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War, he delivered the black vote to the Republican Party, which the GOP monopolized until Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. Thanks in large part to their progressive immigration and stimulus policies, the Democratic Party has thus far won the battle for Latino support. And although nothing is certain in politics, it seems likely that the Democratic Party will continue to win the immigrant vote until the GOP retools, restructures, and rethinks the policies that matter to Hispanic voters.