The only Latino on the Republican ballot in Texas? George P. Bush
Republicans can claim just one Hispanic candidate for statewide office in Texas. George P. Bush, whose mother is from Mexico, is campaigning for Texas land commissioner.
El Paso, Texas — At a Mexican restaurant a stone's throw from the Mexican border, the crowd is bilingual and so is the candidate they've come to see.
"We will go out there and fight the good fight por todas partes," George P. Bush promises, meaning campaigning across all the state.
Even as Texas Republicans insist they've never been more committed to courting the state's booming Hispanic population, they can claim just one Hispanic candidate for statewide office — and he's a Bush, more famous for sharing a name with two former presidents than for having a mother originally from Mexico.
In fact, Bush, the photogenic nominee for land commissioner, stands out on a Republican statewide slate that otherwise consists of all white men. And many of those candidates have run as hard as they can to the right during the primary, talking of militarizing the Texas-Mexico border, scrapping a popular law offering lower tuition for immigrant children and even decrying an "illegal invasion" of immigrants.
Such sentiments may alienate Hispanics amid a demographic shift that could eventually transform politics in fiercely conservative Texas the way similar trends have in Colorado, Nevada, and many points beyond. Hispanics account for nearly 40 percent of Texas' population and is forecast to be a majority around 2030.
Bush says having Hispanics on the ballot isn't as important as better reaching out to Hispanic communities, pushing fiscally and socially conservative values that appeal to families, many with deep Roman Catholic beliefs.
"We gotta tactically show up in the neighborhoods, in the barrio," he told The Associated Press. "We haven't done that as much as we should."
That helped prompt Bush's visit to Julio's Cafe Corona in traditionally Democratic leaning El Paso, and he has made more than a dozen stops along Texas' nearly 1,300-mile border with Mexico — even though he's the overwhelming favorite to win his first public office in November.
Bush has promised to use his post, which oversees the state's publicly held lands and mineral rights, to better communicate with Mexico on trade issues, while also urging Hispanics to register to vote in greater numbers.
His grandfather, George H.W. Bush, was president, and his uncle, George W. Bush, was Texas governor before leaving for the White House, while his father Jeb was governor of Florida. With such a pedigree, it's been easy for some to overlook the fact that George P.'s mother, born Columba Garnica Gallo, has Mexican roots — just like El Paso supporter Margarita Lozano, who looked confused when asked about the Texas GOP's only Hispanic candidate.
"Why is he Hispanic?" asked Lozano, who was among the well-to-do crowd at Julio's. After hearing the explanation, Lozano agreed her party definitely should be doing more to appeal to minorities.
"Knowing the Mexican culture," Lozano said, "I can say that the way they think is that if there are more Republican candidates, they'll feel more inclined to join."
And it's not just Texas. The Republican National Committee last October directed seven state parties, including Texas, to hire Hispanic state and field directors. David Zapata, the Texas GOP's first Hispanic engagement director, said he's hired seven field directors to further boost outreach since last summer alone.
"Just because the Hispanic population is growing doesn't mean that either party's going to benefit automatically," Zapata said. "Both parties are going to have to work for it."
A Gallop poll released last month found that 27 percent of Texas Hispanics identify with the GOP, 6 percentage points higher than elsewhere in the country. But that's still down from the 2004, when exit polling showed George W. Bush won 49 percent of the state's Hispanic vote, and 2008, when John McCain won 35 percent.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa agreed that simply recruiting more Hispanic candidates isn't enough for either party to solidify Hispanic support. But he said that what really motivates many Hispanic voters are matters such as public education, health care and humane immigration reform.
"On those issues," Hinojosa said, "the Republicans are way, way, way on the other side."
He noted that Greg Abbott, Texas' attorney general and the GOP nominee for governor, referenced "third-world countries" while describing a rash of corruption cases in the Rio Grande Valley border region.
Then there's tea party-backed state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, the favorite to win a May Republican primary runoff and unseat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. In a television ad, Patrick decried the "invasion" of immigrants coming across the Texas border — drawing criticism from both parties.
Abbott has made 14 campaign trips to the border and frequently notes that his wife Cecilia would be the first Hispanic first lady of Texas.
"I think, once the primary is over, we as a team will be working together to enlarge the party," Abbott said, "understanding that we're fighting for election victories this November but also fighting for the next few generations of Texas."
Patrick campaign consultant Allen Blakemore said his candidate won't tone things down: "I believe he is articulating a position that's in-line with the majority of Texans."
Weissert reported from Austin. Associated Press Writer Paul J. Weber contributed to this report from Austin.
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