Overwhelming Hispanic support for President Barack Obama -- 72 percent nationwide, according to exit polls -- should be a warning sign for Texas Republicans. As if they needed another.
"If they don't get it after this, they never will get it," conservative activist and Houston insurance agent Norman Adams told me Wednesday.
Adams has worked tirelessly in recent years to beat back harsh anti-immigration bills in the Texas Legislature, to add the words "guest worker" to the Texas GOP platform, and to urge his fellow Republicans to silence the rhetoric -- "illegals!" "anchor babies!" -- that alienates a demographic growing in size and electoral might.
But, for all his efforts, Adams still seems disappointed by his progress: "We're still the party that Hispanics look at as the one that wants to deport their grandmother."
Mitt Romney lost a lot of Hispanic voters early in the Republican presidential primary with his talk of self-deportation and opposing the Dream Act. Even though many Hispanics were disappointed with Obama's failure to deliver on his promise of immigration reform, Romney just wasn't a palatable alternative.
The numbers were especially stark in some swing states. The president won an astounding 87 percent of the Hispanic vote in Colorado, compared with Romney's 10 percent, according to an election eve poll by the academic-led polling organization ImpreMedia-Latino Decisions. The split in Nevada was 80-17 for Obama, according to the group.
McCain did better
In Texas, the best data so far show a 70-30 split for Obama among Hispanic voters, according to Rice University political science chairman Mark Jones. Romney performed several points worse than Sen. John McCain did in 2008. At the same time, Jones points out, Hispanics became a larger share of the vote in Texas, going from 20 percent in 2008 to 25 percent in 2012.
Republican Ted Cruz, who will become the first Hispanic U.S. senator from Texas, may have received a boost linked to his surname. Exit polling showed he outperformed Romney and Republican congressional candidates by 6 percent.
In the long run, Republicans can't rely on surnames to appeal to Hispanics, although a few more on the ballot wouldn't hurt.
"They're going to have to reach out and do more than say that 'Hispanics have values that are similar to ours.' That's an old refrain, which apparently is not bearing any fruit with the Hispanic population," says Tatcho Mindiola, associate sociology professor and director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston.
More than anything, though, Republican state leaders need to stop certain members of their party from alienating Hispanic voters, or mobilizing them in the opposite direction, with harsh policies and rhetoric.
"The tenor of discourse is more important than policy," says Rice's Jones.
But policy matters, too. Republicans won't restore George W. Bush-era good will with Hispanics by pushing the kind of divisive legislation that's expected to come up again this session.
State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, buoyed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Arizona's tough immigration law, plans to pursue a law requiring Texas police to check the immigration status of anyone legally detained. She'll try again for a so-called "sanctuary cities" ban, despite the fact that Texas has no sanctuary cities.
Tea party conservatives are expected to try to dismantle a law that made Gov. Rick Perry look like a great humanitarian next to Romney in the presidential primaries. Perry boldly defended Texas' version of the Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas public universities. The governor still stands by the law, but we'll see if he's able to maintain that support and also defend the same students' current eligibility for state financial aid.
Hard to convince
Of course, as Jones says, "it's tough to convince Texas Republicans that there's a demographic imperative when you're winning statewide races by 15 points." Or when the Democrats can't seem to find enough warm bodies, or filing fees, to run candidates in all statewide offices.
"Most leaders get it," Jones says. "The dilemma they face is: They and other Republicans have to compete in Republican primaries, where the majority of voters don't get it, they don't believe it or they don't care."
This past election should help them understand. If Texas Republicans don't stop offending Texas' fastest-growing demographic, they'll one day go over a cliff. Not a fiscal one. An electoral one.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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