October 14, 2002
THE HISPANIC REPUBLIC OF TEXAS
It’s coming. Soon.
JOHN J. MILLER
If Texas voters elect Ron Kirk to the Senate on November 5, his win will become the story of Election Night. The TV commentators will dwell on his amazing victory, and his smiling face will be on the front pages of the Wednesday morning papers.
This summer, it looked like Kirk might pull it off. The polls had him leading his Republican opponent, attorney general John Cornyn. There was even talk that the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate, a self-funded millionaire named Tony Sanchez, would unseat Gov. Rick Perry. A big year for Democrats in Texas? This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen.
And it probably won’t — at least not this time. By September, Cornyn had inched ahead of Kirk, and Perry appeared to have a comfortable lead over Sanchez. Yet their summertime bubble was not imaginary. A political transformation is coming to Texas, driven by the hard facts of Hispanic demography. When it does arrive, it will almost certainly not be to the liking of conservatives.
The most important political story of the last few decades in Texas has been the remarkable rise of the GOP — how a one-party state dominated by Democrats became a one-party state dominated by Republicans. The high-water mark arrived six years ago, when the GOP won every statewide race. Two years later, of course, Texas sent its chief executive to the White House.
That’s a tough act to follow anywhere, but it will soon become impossible for Texas Republicans to approach anything like it again. The most important political story of the next decade or two in Texas will be the ascendancy of the Democrats.
It all comes down to Hispanic population growth. Along with New Mexico, Texas is home to some of the oldest and most established Mexican-American communities in the country. But there are plenty of newcomers as well. Of the 6.7 million Hispanics in Texas — about one-third of the total state population — almost 2.4 million arrived in the 1990s. State demographer Steve Murdock calculates that Anglos (i.e., non-Hispanic whites) will make up less than half the population within three or four years. “Sometime between 2026 and 2035,” he adds, “Texas will become majority Hispanic, assuming current trends hold.” The Anglo population won’t decline in absolute numbers, as it has in California and several other large states, but Murdock anticipates that its growth will brake to a near stop.
No Democrat running for a major statewide office in Texas has won a majority of Anglo votes in 20 years — the last was Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, in 1982. “Back then, everybody was talking about ‘Republican realignment,'” says David Hill, Cornyn’s pollster. “We did a study looking at the birthrates and migration patterns of different groups. Our conclusion was that the realignment would be undone by the first decade of the 21st century, and now we’re here.”
Hill says that two things have slowed the pace of change: Hispanics don’t vote as frequently as Anglos and blacks, and George W. Bush busted the idea that Republicans can’t attract more than a third of their votes. Exit polls have never agreed on how much support Bush really draws from Texas Hispanics, but 40 percent is probably a reasonable estimate. On the national level in 2000, he is believed to have captured 31 percent of all Hispanic votes — a dismal performance in one sense, but also the best GOP showing since Ronald Reagan’s in 1984.
This is no way to a governing majority. The math is simple: More Hispanic voters equals fewer Republican victories. And one thing is certain about the future in Texas: There will be more Hispanic voters. Bush’s success has given the GOP a short reprieve from the inevitable, and it may last a bit longer, surviving on the fumes of recent success. Then comes the tipping point — “maybe by the end of the decade,” says one senior White House politico.
Many Republicans have wrestled with this problem, but the party still has not had to reckon with the consequences of Hispanic demography on the federal level. One of the peculiarities of the Electoral College is that the national distribution of Hispanics actually aids the GOP: If every Hispanic voter had stayed home on Election Day in 2000, Bush would have won the popular vote but Al Gore would be president. Without Hispanics, California, Illinois, and New York still would have gone for Bill Clinton or Gore in each of the last three elections. Without Cuban Americans, however, Florida would have slipped away from the GOP.
This goes to show that not all Hispanics are alike. Just as there’s a big difference between Cuban Americans and other Hispanics, there’s a big difference between immigrants in East Los Angeles and Mexican Americans from old families in Laredo. Texas Hispanics, in fact, are more conservative than most other Hispanics. According to a recent poll by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, they’re much less concerned about race relations and discrimination than Hispanics in other states, and much more concerned about jobs and the economy. They are also less supportive of abortion rights and gun control. “Hispanics in Texas aren’t liberals,” says Tom Pauken, former GOP state chairman. Yet this may be small consolation: Two-thirds consider themselves Democrats — the party of abortion rights and gun control — and in this respect they aren’t much different from the national Hispanic profile.
When a sink’s overflowing, the first thing to do is shut off the water, and one potential solution for Republicans is to try cutting legal immigration. Yet this strategy may have fatal drawbacks. “The restrictionists are asking us to take a huge gamble on the unlikely odds that immigration reform will succeed. The whole project would alienate Hispanics from Republicans even further, including those who haven’t even arrived yet,” says Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute. Hope may have to rest on assimilation. “Middle-class Hispanics are basically split, 50-50, between the two parties,” says Richard Murray, who directs the Houston Chronicle’s political polling.
But that’s the long term. The short-term good news for Texas Republicans is that they look ready to have a successful 2002 election. In March, the Democrats nominated the so-called “Dream Team” ticket — a black for the Senate (Kirk), a Hispanic for governor (Sanchez), and an Anglo for lieutenant governor (John Sharp). This sort of racial and ethnic balancing may represent the political future of Texas, but it hasn’t electrified the state this time around.
Demographic destiny probably won’t come soon enough for Ron Kirk. As mayor of Dallas, he earned a solid reputation for working with the business community, and had the look of a center-seeking New Democrat — but it may be old-time liberalism that undoes his campaign. In August, The New Yorker quoted Kirk summarizing his election this way: “What it comes down to is whether white people are going to vote for a black man.” For most voters, of course, it will come down to something else, such as Kirk’s views on Iraq and his willingness to support the president.
At a rally in San Antonio on September 13, Kirk made what may go down as the great belly-flop comment of his candidacy. “You go look at the people that are responsible for all the corporate wrongdoing in this country, you ain’t gonna find a whole lot of people who look like us. You go to Wall Street and look at the people who have been defrauding our nation and brought our economy to its knees, you ain’t gonna find a lot of people who look like us,” he said to a heavily minority audience.
This loose talk about The Man was obnoxious, but the worst — by far — was yet to come: “You go to the battlefield of Afghanistan, you look in the burial grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, you go to [the] Vietnam [Memorial], you find us anywhere. . . . I wonder how excited [my critics would] be if I get to the United States Senate and I put forth a resolution that says the next time we go to war the first 500,000 kids have to come from families who earn a million dollars or more.” This moment of racial hysteria, by the way, comes courtesy of a man who said he opposed Bush judicial nominee Priscilla Owen — a native Texan — because he found her lacking the “even temperament” to be a federal judge.
What remains clear is that Texas Democrats really might have threatened Republicans in this election — but only if they had nominated candidates like John Breaux and Zell Miller. Kirk is no race hustler like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton — he has tried to help Dallas corporations, not shake them down — but he still is to the left of where Texans want their politicians to be. The last Democrat to occupy the seat Sen. Phil Gramm is giving up was Lyndon Johnson, and the next one probably won’t be Ron Kirk; at least not in 2002. But he or someone very much like him is in the cards for Texas — and much sooner than most Republicans realize.