As Latinos tilt Democratic, can Texas stay ‘red’?

The Lone Star State is the last big GOP bastion where Hispanics are a sizable voting bloc.

By , Staff writer

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    Voter-registration volunteers: Amara Williams (l.) and Estela Reyes (c.) were among those sworn in as deputy election registrars in El Paso County, Texas, in August. Many took part in a grass-roots drive to boost Latino voter registration.
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When President Bush says so long to Washington on Jan. 20, he’ll return to a much different Lone Star State from the one he left eight years ago.

Pickup trucks, Big Oil, and barbecue brisket still reign supreme, but this red state that helped deliver the presidency to Mr. Bush twice and his father once, and that catapulted GOP strategist Karl Rove to the national stage, is suddenly spotted with big pockets of blue.

Dallas is controlled by Democrats; Houston is in their hands, too. It’s all largely because of the state’s growing Hispanic population, which overwhelmingly sided with Democrats this year.

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“The tide of demography in Texas is moving against the Republicans,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “All the major cities are Democratic and are likely to become more so over time.”

The Pew Hispanic Center reports that Latino voters sided with President-elect Obama over Sen. John McCain by a margin of more than 2 to 1, helping Democrats win crucial states such as Florida, Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado. While the overall Hispanic turnout did not rise much – it accounted for 9 percent of the vote this year and 8 percent in 2004 – Latino support for the GOP dropped nine percentage points, according to Pew.

That has left Republicans panicking and Democrats drooling. Duncan Currie writes in last week’s conservative Weekly Standard that Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida says the GOP has a “very, very serious problem” because of diminishing Hispanic support.

Political scientists, sociologists, and activists say that concern reflects a keen awareness of what a growing and increasingly political Latino community could mean in big, traditionally red states like Texas: Those voters could tip Democratic in future national contests.

“We are in the process of watching this remarkable shift,” says Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University here, referring to the overall demographic transformation of America. “You can be absolutely certain that every election [to come] in Texas will have a larger percentage of Latino voters.”

In 2005, Texas joined California, New Mexico, and Hawaii as states where minority populations collectively outnumber whites, according to the US Census Bureau. In Texas and California, the second-largest group behind whites, and the fastest-growing population, is Hispanics. Nationwide, Hispanics number about 45.5 million, or 15 percent of the population. In Texas, Latinos make up about 36 percent of the population and about 20 percent of participating voters this year.

“It’s the biggest pool of Hispanic voters left in a state that didn’t vote Democratic in 2008,” not counting Arizona, because it’s Senator McCain’s home state, says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston.

For the Democratic Party nationally, the overwhelming Hispanic support presents an inviting opportunity, especially to develop party loyalty among younger Latinos, who backed Mr. Obama 76 percent to 19 percent for McCain, according the Pew analysis.

In Harris Country, which includes Houston, 70 percent of people older than 60 are Anglo, while more than 75 percent of people younger than 30 are non-Anglo, notes Professor Klineberg.

While Bush didn’t carry the Hispanic vote here in 2004, he came close. He captured 49 percent of that bloc, with 50 percent going to Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry. Republicans also lost ground among Hispanics this year in Florida.

Since the advent of his political career, though, Bush found ways to appeal to the Latino community, which saw him favorably for his close relationships with Latin American leaders, his faith-based initiatives, and his ability to speak Spanish.

While Hispanics are not a monolithic bloc, many began turning away from the Republicans in Texas, and elsewhere in the US, amid the harsh rhetoric about immigration reform in 2007, says Professor Murray.

“Even in Texas you can’t just be a party of white folks,” he says. “Nationally and locally, the party is going to have to do some retooling.”

Though the Lone Star State’s spots of blue darkened on Election Day, the state remains solidly Republican (55 percent McCain, 44 percent Obama). McCain scored huge victories in rural Texas, taking as much as 93 percent of the vote in some counties in the Panhandle, helping deliver the state’s 34 electoral votes to the Republicans. The statehouse in Austin also remains in Republican hands.

Associated Press exit polls showed that whites, seniors, Christians, and the affluent largely stayed with the GOP ticket and that McCain took two-thirds of the state’s white vote and about three-fifths of families making more than $50,000 annually.

While rural, suburban, and small-town Texans stick with traditional Republican values, Klineberg says, a new cosmopolitan and high-tech Texas is emerging in cities such as Houston, which is the country’s fourth-largest city, with a population of about 2 million.

Houstonian Judy Craft, a longtime Democratic activist and an environmentalist, is used to swimming against the red tide in Texas. “I was hoping we’d do better, but that’s because I’m really good at suspending my disbelief during the middle of a campaign,” says Ms. Craft, who signed off her e-mails during the campaign with the hopeful wish that Texas would turn blue. “Oh well, at least I got a bluer shade of purple.”

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