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Texans Warn Amped Up Rhetoric Is Erasing Republicans' Progress With Latinos

A bilingual sign outside a polling center in Austin, Texas.
John Moore
Getty Images
A bilingual sign outside a polling center in Austin, Texas.

Texas is one of 12 states voting on "Super Tuesday" next week, but Republicans there are a little nervous about this year's election.

Less than two years ago, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, won 48 percent of the Hispanic vote during his re-election.

However, in an election season dominated by calls from GOP presidential candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to build a wall with Mexico and deport every immigrant who's in the country illegally, some Texas Republicans fear years of outreach is being undone if either man becomes the party's nominee.

Both candidates were viewed negatively by a new Washington Post/Univision poll of Hispanic voters. A whopping 80 percent of those polled viewed Trump unfavorably, while 44 percent had a negative view of Cruz, who is of Cuban ancestry.

Republican operatives cite Cornyn's re-election, specifically, as proof conservatives can continue to win statewide elections in Texas. That's even as the Hispanic vote, which on a national level leans Democratic, keeps growing.

Outreach to Latinos was a big part of Cornyn's campaign, which is why strategists say he was able to win the Texas Latino vote in 2014. Campaign ads in multiple languages — including Spanish — blanketed the state. Republican operative Brendan Steinhauser, who helped Cornyn win that election, said the campaign also knocked on doors and held events in communities of color.

"If you show respect to people as an individuals and as a community — you show up, you break bread, you get coffee, and you show that you are listening to their concerns – you can still can have some disagreements on public policy and still end up winning those votes," he said.

Steinhauser is optimistic Republicans have a good future in Texas — even if they stand their ground on issues like immigration. He said the party doesn't need to waiver on issues such as amnesty for people living in the U.S. who entered the country illegally. The key, Steinhauser said, is making a case using a respectful tone.

However, Steinhauser and other Republicans here worry that's not happening in the current Republican presidential primary.

In a recent Fox News interview, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Bill O'Reilly all 12 million people who entered the country illegally should be deported.

"Listen we should enforce the law," Cruz said. How do we enforce the law? Yes we should deport them. We should build a wall. We should triple the border patrol."

Comments like these are why Miguel Martinez, a student at the University of Texas in Austin, said he plans to vote for a Democrat this year. He's a student at the University of Texas in Austin.

"I am an immigrant. I was born in Mexico and immigrated here," Martinez explains. "I have family who are immigrants who are still working on getting here."

"[Immigration] is being talked about on the Republican side but in just in a really ugly and evil manner that makes me feel like I don't belong here."

Artemio Muniz, a Republican strategist who's trying to win over Hispanic Texans, said hearing young Hispanic voters swear off the Republican party is one of his big worries.

He said Cruz and Trump could be doing lasting damage to the Texas Republican Party's brand.

"It's toxified it and it's going to be very hard, very difficult as a grassroots organizer to go into neighborhoods and try to convince the prototypical Hispanic voter to vote for the Republican party," Muniz said.

Even though reaching out to Latino voters in Texas worked in the party's favor just recently, Muniz said it's been hard to convince national campaigns to tone down the rhetoric.

"You have some people that still believe that the current climate is okay," he said. "They just sort of have 'head in the sand' mentality, where they campaign to the base where some candidates will say, 'Well, it's not my concern. We have to win the primary.'"

Steve Munisteri, a former Republican Party of Texas chair, said what happened in California in the 90s should be a cautionary tale.

The state had been friendly to the GOP until then Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, pushed an anti-immigrant ballot measure. Now, the state Republican party is a shadow of what it once was.

"It seems like they had a big slide in Hispanic voters over a fairly short period of time when governor Wilson was elected," he said.

Munisteri said even though Texas Latinos are more conservative than Latinos in California, the Republican Party's long-term health still depends on who ends up being the nominee.

He said if Republicans choose a candidate who doesn't make Hispanic voters feel welcome, then the party — even in Texas — will be in big trouble.

Copyright 2016 KUT 90.5

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.
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