News Column

Texas Dems Pin their Hopes on Growing Hispanic Population

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Not since 1976 has Texas gone blue in a presidential election year. But are the numbers on the Democratic Party's side?

Some experts say yes, pointing to the collision of two trends -- Hispanics' overwhelming support for President Barack Obama on Tuesday, and the growing number of Hispanics in the Lone Star State.

But even party officials acknowledge that the road ahead is long, and members of the Texas GOP -- which just sent the first Hispanic from the state to the U.S. Senate -- promise to "wake up" and find a way to connect.

"We will become a blue state much sooner than later," said state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. But "there is a lot of work to do. I'm not going to deny it."

After a campaign that included harsh rhetoric on immigration reform, Hispanics provided more support for Obama in 2012 than in 2008, the only major demographic group to do so, according to exit polls across the nation.

Obama received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 27 percent for Mitt Romney. And turnout mattered: Ten percent of the voters were Hispanic, compared with 9 percent in 2008.

Texas Hispanics mirrored the nationwide trends, although turnout numbers were not available.

Hinojosa said the numbers show that Texas Hispanics and other minorities are helping Democrats make inroads, especially in the major urban centers of Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso -- all of which went for Obama.

Tarrant County bucked the trend, going heavily for Romney.

Political experts and Hispanic leaders say that for Texas Democrats to pull off a transition from red to blue, the party must mobilize Hispanic voters, using the same kind of ground game that the president's campaign workers did in Tuesday's election. They could also, some say, take lessons from the campaign of state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, whose pro-family messaging helped build a coalition that lifted her to victory in one of the nation's most conservative counties.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, acknowledge that they must find a way to energize Hispanic voters, perhaps by softening their stance on immigration reform.

"The giant has awakened," said Juan Hernandez, co-founder of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas. "The Republican Party must wake up to this new electorate."

Hernandez said Romney could have done a much better job of embracing Hispanics.

"He is the son of a Mexican. He kept that quiet," Hernandez said. "That should have been a plus, not a negative."

Dreamers got out the vote in crucial states

If Hispanic voters emerged as the darlings of Obama's victory, the words "groundwork," "mobilization" and "coalition" became the political buzzwords.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro told CNN that while Hispanics have embraced Democrats at the national level, Texas remains red because the grassroots efforts to enlist Hispanics are not consistent statewide.

Still, Castro said, "Within the next six to eight years, I believe Texas will be at least be a purple state, if not a blue state."

Going to door to door and making face-to-face contact is especially effective with Hispanic voters because it empowers them, experts say. Such efforts were in play this election in battleground states as well as parts of Texas.

"They were in all the key states and it was critical that they turn out," said Valerie Martinez-Ebers, professor of political science at the University of North Texas and an editor of the American Political Science Review.

So-called Dreamers, undocumented children who were brought to the United States by their parents illegally, played a key role in that movement, Martinez-Ebers said.

While many were initially upset with the president for a lack of action on immigration reform, they changed their position earlier this year when Obama issued an executive action that allows certain undocumented young people to remain in this country without fear of deportation. The program is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

"I think that's what really saved him and shored up his support," she said.

Edward Sanchez, 22, a Democrat who worked as an election judge in Lancaster, said many Hispanic voters were unclear about the future of deferred action had Romney been elected.

Obama's Hispanic support jumped to 80 percent in Nevada and 87 percent in Colorado -- both key battleground states where Dreamers worked hard to get out the vote.

Daniel Rodriguez, who lives in Phoenix and is a member of the United We Dream network, said Dreamers took their story to Hispanic voters in those states -- using both their feet and social media.

"I am American without papers," Rodriguez said he told Hispanic voters. "That is a story I share everywhere I go. That story resonates with them."

Hinojosa said the young Hispanic movement is part of the formula to turn Texas blue. "We recognize that's our path to victory -- young Hispanics, who are U.S. citizens who see the policies of the Democratic Party are consistent with what they believe in," Hinojosa said.

Cruz trailed badly among Hispanic voters

While Hispanic voter turnout made headlines nationwide, Texas made history with the election of Cruz to the U.S. Senate.

But Cruz's victory over Democrat Paul Sadler also intrigues political watchers, who pointed to his inability to garner the Hispanic vote.

Statewide, 65 percent of Hispanics voted for Sadler and 35 percent voted for Cruz, according to an analysis from impreMedia and Latino Decisions, which conducted exit polls in 11 states, including Texas.

In the heavily Hispanic areas of San Antonio and El Paso, Sadler beat Cruz with 50.5 and 61 percent of the vote, respectively.

Cruz got strong support in Tarrant County, winning 57 percent of the vote.

Tarrant is the state's only major urban area to go decidedly red.

Ruben Jimenez Jr., chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Hispanic Assembly, said Cruz's biography is compelling since it touches on his escape from Communist Cuba.

"I backed Cruz because he knows what can happen if we go socialist," Jimenez said of the candidate, a darling of the Tea Party. "That I like about him. I like the conservative values."

"The Republican Party is going to ignore or alienate the Latino electorate at its own peril," said Susan Gonzalez Baker, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. "The numbers speak for themselves."

Many in the GOP say a softer approach to immigration reform is the key.

On Thursday, conservative radio talk show host Sean Hannity told listeners that he has "evolved" on immigration reform and recognizes the need for a sensible solution, according to Alfonso Aguilar, executive director for the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.

"There is a growing momentum within the conservative movement to embrace a market-based immigration plan that is in line with Ronald Reagan, who said it best: 'No regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters,'" Aguilar said in a news release.

Hispanic voters 'very important' for Davis

While the Latino vote in Tarrant County had no impact on the presidential or U.S. Senate race, political watchers said it played a key role in helping Davis defeat her Republican challenger, state Rep. Mark Shelton, in the race for state Senate District 10.

Davis, who said the Hispanic vote was "very important" in victory, beat Shelton by about 6,000 votes.

"There were a number of people in the Latino community who came forward and said, 'This is our candidate of choice,'" Davis said this week. "And they joined with African-Americans who felt the same way."

One of the keys, said Tarrant County Constable Sergio De Leon, is that Davis "cares about families. She cares about children. We know she will continue to fight for us Austin."

Supporting funding for public education was a key platform for Davis, as was immigration reform.

The groundwork laid by her campaign was also important, experts say.

"It looks like a really good ground game, old-fashioned shoe leather and grassroots organizing, along with money," Baker said.

Tarrant County Republican Chairwoman Jennifer Hall acknowledged that work needs to be done to better engage Hispanics. And she agreed with others in her party that immigration reform will play a major role in future elections.

"We all want legal immigration happening," Hall said. "We want to make sure everyone comes the correct way."

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