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.

March 2005By Comments

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 degrees from Texas A&M, Harvard, and George Washington University. When he was elected to the San Antonio city council, in 1975, he focused not on civil rights but on a new issue—better jobs for San Antonio. The appeal reached not only Hispanics, who wanted their children to prosper, but also Anglos, who wanted their city to experience the good times that Houston and Dallas had enjoyed. His message—that a rising tide lifts all boats—was powerful enough that, in 1981, he was elected mayor, a nonpartisan office, with the help of more than 40 percent of the Anglo vote. Democrats pressed him to run for governor or U.S. senator, but as we know, he spurned what many saw as his destiny, leaving Texas in 1993 to serve as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. When he was charged by the FBI because it found that, during a background check, he had understated payments he’d made to his mistress, his political prospects and influence evaporated.

By then, Henry C.’s message was getting competition from Sosa’s mantra that Republicans were better guardians of the American dream. Sosa’s partner, Frank Guerra, quit his job as an executive producer for San Antonio’s KENS-TV in 1992 to run the congressional campaign of Henry Bonilla, also an executive producer at the station. Bonilla became the first Hispanic Republican from Texas to be elected to Congress. Bonilla reflects the change in San Antonio’s Hispanic community. He was born in a public-housing project but now lives on the suburban North Side. “Times have changed,” Guerra told me. “Hispanics are in the mainstream now. They don’t need the Democratic party to be their champion. They are making it on their own. The victim message no longer works.”

Bonilla has announced that he will seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate if Kay Bailey Hutchison runs against Governor Rick Perry, raising the possibility that the history of Hispanic politics in Texas would evolve from Henry B. to Henry C. to a very different Henry B. Bonilla is trying to position himself as Cisneros once did—as an archetypal figure with a statewide future. The question is whether he can win a Republican primary race, since the party is dominated by Anglo voters and candidates. Tony Garza, currently Bush’s ambassador to Mexico, couldn’t do it; he finished fourth in the 1994 attorney general’s race.

The difference in the Republican and Democratic messages could be seen on the Web sites of the two 2004 presidential candidates. Cisneros, who is now back in San Antonio as founder and chairman of the affordable-housing developer American CityVista, delivered John Kerry’s main message to Hispanics, narrating the Massachusetts senator’s biography. The site also had a long list of detailed comparisons of Kerry and Bush on major issues such as health care and education. The approach of using Cisneros as a broker seemed especially outdated. Bush, meanwhile, narrated his own Web site biography, and a slogan on a banner promised that he would fight for Hispanics cuerpo y alma—body and soul.

For Democrats, the 2004 Bush vote suggests that the days of the party’s being able to count on straight-ticket Hispanic voters are over. Republicans are going to contest the Democrats’ traditional dominance of the Hispanic vote and build a Hispanic farm system of statewide officeholders, as Bush did and as Perry has continued to do with appointees like railroad commissioner Victor Carrillo and Supreme Court justice David Medina. In 2002 Perry easily won reelection, with an estimated 35 percent of the Hispanic vote, against Tony Sanchez, a billionaire banker—the same percentage that Greg Abbott received in the attorney general’s race and five percentage points more than John Cornyn polled in his Senate race against Ron Kirk. “For now, if Republicans can get a third of the Hispanic vote in statewide races, they win,” says Mike Baselice, a Republican pollster in Austin. “Republican candidates will continue to win statewide races in Texas for at least a decade.” The day will come, sometime around 2030, when the Democratic dream of a Texas that is majority Hispanic will be a reality, but if the Democrats don’t change their stand-by-your-party message, they may not be able to change the direction of Texas politics.

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