Grand Opportunity Party

The Republicans and George W. Bush won a record share of the Hispanic vote in November—and that ought to scare the Democrats to death.

The critical battle for the hispanic vote, and all it portends for Texas and for America in the years to come, has its roots in a meeting at the Capitol in the fall of 1998. Karl Rove, the political adviser to then-governor George W. Bush, summoned Lionel Sosa, the head of a San Antonio advertising agency that specialized in marketing to Hispanics, to talk about how Bush’s reelection campaign could generate a big Hispanic turnout. Rove was already thinking ahead to a presidential race in 2000, and he saw an opportunity to prove to Republicans outside Texas that Bush had the ability to win over a traditionally Democratic constituency. The meeting was scheduled for one hour. It lasted three. Bush had three goals. First, he wanted the highest percentage of the Hispanic vote of any Republican candidate in Texas history. Second, he wanted his message to be emotional and bilingual—“ un nuevo día,” “a new day.” Last, he wanted the campaign to be a road map for Republicans, starting with himself, to effectively target Hispanic voters in the future.

Sosa had a wealth of political experience to draw on. Back in 1978, when Texas was still largely a one-party Democratic state, Republican John Tower hired him to create advertisements in English and Spanish for his reelection race for the U.S. Senate. Sosa’s ads played on the cultural conservatism of Hispanics: patriotism, work ethic, and strong family ties. Tower claimed to have won 37 percent of the Hispanic vote (because of the stakes, such estimates have been hotly disputed), which proved to be essential in a race decided by less than a percentage point. In subsequent years, Sosa advised Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, saying, in effect, that the secret to winning over Hispanic voters was that there was no secret. Hispanics wanted what other voters wanted—a good candidate with an authentic message. Sosa’s message was simple: No group of voters is as hungry for the American dream as Hispanic immigrants, and the Republican party is a better guardian of that dream than the Democratic. For Bush’s 1998 campaign, Sosa would focus on an explicit emotional connection. “I’m proud of the Hispanic blood that flows in my family,” Bush said in an ad that showed him with his nephew George P., the son of Florida governor Jeb Bush and his wife, Columba, who was born in Mexico. On election night, Bush got 49 percent of the Hispanic vote, the highest percentage any statewide Republican candidate had ever received.

In the 2004 presidential election Bush called upon Sosa again, and again the strategy proved successful. Depending on whose figures you believe, Bush’s percentage of the national Hispanic vote ranged from 36 to 44 percent, with the consensus being around 40 percent. (The explanation for the wide range, dueling spinmeisters say, is that some surveys oversampled suburban areas while others undersampled the suburbs in favor of barrio precincts.) But the precise number isn’t as important as the first digit; anything in the forties is huge for Republicans. Democrats have been counting on the ever-growing Hispanic population to make them competitive in Texas and around the country, but Republicans believe that Sosa’s cultural-conservatism, American-dream message can enable them to lock in a significant fraction of the Hispanic vote and solidify their majority status.

One bit of good news for the Republicans is the increasing diversity of the Hispanic vote. It was much easier for Democrats to roll up big majorities when almost all Hispanics lived in poor inner-city neighborhoods like the West Side of San Antonio or Houston’s East End. But in recent years many second- and third-generation Hispanic voters have moved to the suburbs and small towns. They don’t always have Hispanic names, and they may not feel the same sense of ethnic identification as barrio voters. A growing number are Protestant, not Catholic. The more diverse Hispanics become—in where they live, in where they worship, in what they do for a living, and in how many generations they are removed from their Mexican origins—the more independent their voting habits are likely to be. On November 2 Bush won at least 50 percent of the vote in several South Texas counties, including Cameron (Brownsville and Harlingen), and averaged 41 percent in the counties along the U.S.-Mexico border.

How did the GOP broaden its appeal to Hispanics? Conventional wisdom credits the cultural conservatism noted by Sosa and its influence on Hispanic support of the war in Iraq and antipathy to abortion and gay marriage. The challenge for Democrats is to counter the appeal of the Sosa message to contemporary Hispanic voters. In some ways, the Democrats are still stuck with the messages of the fifties and sixties, when Texas was strongly tainted by segregation and Mexican Americans were frequently its victims. Even around San Antonio “No dogs or Mexicans allowed” signs could be found at restaurants, and Mexican Americans could not use public swimming pools or water fountains. The Hispanic community on the city’s West Side needed a champion, and Democrat Henry B. Gonzalez, a first-generation Mexican American with strong emotional ties to Mexico, emerged to fill that need. In 1957 Gonzalez, then a member of the Texas Senate, conducted a 22-hour filibuster against segregation legislation. Throughout a 37-year career in the U.S. Congress, Henry B.—as he was known by everyone—preached the message of civil rights for Mexican Americans.

Then, in the late seventies, another son of the West Side, Henry Cisneros, emerged as a different kind of champion. Henry C. was a second-generation Mexican American. He learned the political lessons of the first generation from, among others, his late uncle Ruben Mungia, who owned a print shop on the West Side and served as Henry B.’s campaign manager in his first race for the Texas Legislature. On Sunday afternoons Mungia would load his nieces and nephews in the back of his truck, and they’d spend the afternoon politicking at union picnics and campaign rallies. Henry C. was the embodiment of the first generation’s dream: He had college

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