By voting in large numbers for President Obama, Hidalgo County, Texas, mirrored
the nation's Latino vote.
Obama handily won re-election last week by winning over Hispanics, the key demographic group that propelled him to victory in battleground states such as Nevada, Colorado and Virginia. Obama's 71 percent support from the nation's largest minority group equaled his overall total in Hidalgo County, where the population is more than 90 percent Hispanic.
The thumping Republicans took nationally from Hispanics led GOP leaders to immediately soften their stance on immigration reform, with House Speaker John Boehner suggesting the next Congress should take up an immigration bill. But U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said Republicans need more than token outreach to Hispanics if they want to reach the 44 percent support President George W. Bush claimed in his 2004 re-election bid.
Cuellar, a conservative Democrat, said the Republican Party must rethink its position on issues -- from voter ID and anti-immigrant measures to cuts to healthcare and education programs -- if they're going to remain viable with the awakening Hispanic vote.
"(Republicans) can spin it any way they want. Hispanics were not supporting Republicans because of their extreme positions on many issues," Cuellar said. "They just saw the writing on the wall. If they don't, they will be the minority party in the future."
Up and down the ballot in Texas, Hispanic support for Democratic candidates led to their victory.
Three Hidalgo County Democrats -- state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, state Rep. Armando "Mando" Martinez and state Rep. Bobby Guerra -- won their elections over Hispanic Republicans. Across the state, Hispanic Democrats running for office against Hispanic Republicans won nine of 10 Texas House races, with the GOP's lone bright spot coming in the race where incumbent J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, outspent his opponent by nearly 4-to-1.
State Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, D-San Antonio, said the Democrats' victories in those races were not an anomaly as Hispanic voters chose candidates that promoted positions important to them. Although the Republican Party has tried to make inroads with Latino voters by saying the party's position reflects their values, Martinez-Fischer said the "rhetoric does not match the reality" when conservative legislators take measures, such as cutting full-day pre-kindergarten programs that are predominately filled with Hispanic children.
And in a state where a Hispanic majority is fast-approaching, its political future will likely hinge on which party captures the Hispanic vote.
"With respect to the Democratic Party and its ability to become viable in Texas, the linchpin for any success going into the next 10 to 15 years is how you value and engage the support of the Latino community," said Martinez-Fischer, the founder of a political action committee that will promote the interests of Hispanics in Austin. "The difference, however, is that the Democratic Party's value of Latinos is substantive, but the Republican Party's is illusory."
Whether the Republican Party can change its image to Hispanics could affect attempts to make inroads in Hidalgo County, one of the bluest parts of the state.
While the Hidalgo County Republican Party contested more races this year, none of its local elections was within 20 percentage points. Hidalgo County Republican Party Chairman Javier Villalobos said Mitt Romney's support for hard-line immigration measures during the primary trickled down to the local candidates who don't share the same position.
"In reality, it turns off some individuals," Villalobos said. "Our Republican candidates may not have the same stance, but the perception is the thought that matters."
The margin among Hispanics in the presidential election wasn't a surprise to Republicans who had been sounding alarm bells, said state Rep. Aaron Pena, R-Edinburg. But the Romney campaign's failure to reach out to Hispanics also weakened the Republican brand for candidates further down the ballot in Texas.
When Romney made the choice to move to the right during the primary, he used the Hispanic community to do it when he called for "self-deportation" to lower the number of undocumented immigrants, Pena said. Obama, meanwhile, announced in June that immigration authorities would grant work permits to people brought here illegally as children who since have graduated high school or served in the military.
"The (election's) message was received loud and clear," Pena said. "There are still outlier voices that will say things that get people's attention, but the mainstream of the Republican Party understands that we have to adapt or we will die."
The GOP's biggest test may be whether they can make that adjustment.
State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said the Republican Party's traditional small government conservatives are not anti-Hispanic or anti-immigrant, but their voices have been drowned out by an ideology-driven faction within the party.
When the state's Tea Party legislators pushed divisive measures such as sanctuary cities, the traditional, business-friendly bloc of the party looked to Democrats to block it and provide cover from their party's base, said Hinojosa, a bipartisan member of his chamber. Instead of finding ways to reach out to the Hispanic vote, they adopted controversial voter ID legislation as a means to suppress it.
"(Voter ID) will only work on a short-term basis," he said. "For a long-term solution, they need to change their rhetoric and embrace all Americans."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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