The biggest reason Texas is a red state traces back to 1994, when Republicans Pete Wilson of California and George W. Bush of Texas handled immigration as differently as Taco Bell and Casino El Camino, and we're still feeling the effects today.
When Democrat Ann Richards and Wilson were up for re-election, it looked like Richards would coast to victory and Wilson was a goner. The opposite happened because Wilson rode the anti-immigrant wave with Proposition 187, which sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants, while Bush ignored immigration and actively sought the Hispanic vote.
Oddly, exit polls show that despite their diametrically opposed approaches, Wilson and Bush received the same percentage of the Hispanic vote. After riling up the white folks, Wilson got 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. And after going to predominantly Hispanic towns and telling them that he wanted to reform their schools to help their children, Bush got 28 percent.
It didn't matter then, but the different ways Bush and Wilson handled immigration played a huge role in our political future.
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In California, Hispanics started leaving the Republican Party, and four years later the Republican nominee got only 22 percent of the Hispanic vote. Texas went in the opposite direction. Bush got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote when he ran for re-election in 1998. Hispanic identification with the Texas Democratic Party leveled off, and nowadays a Republican running for statewide office in Texas can count on getting a third of all Hispanic votes just by showing up.
That difference adds up to a lot of Texans. If Texas Hispanics voted Republican as often as their California cohort did, that would mean about 100,000 more Democratic votes.
Add to that the anomaly of Texas Hispanics' miserable rates of voting participation, and you understand why Texas is a Republican state and not a swing state. Hispanics are 37 percent of the Texas population — and rising — but they're only 15 percent of those who show up at the polls.
"There is a mystery to Texas," said Andre Pineda, the late Democratic pollster. "Why is it that Latinos turn out less there? I think the Democratic performance of Latinos is a big difference but not a defining difference because it's when you throw in the turnout part that explains why Texas is red." Translation: Not only are Texas Hispanics less likely to vote than California Hispanics, but they are more likely to vote Republican when they do.
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Assume Pineda was right and that if more Hispanics showed up to vote that Texas would be a swing state. If you boost Hispanic turnout to 20 percent of the electorate and everything else stays the same, then Democrats would get about 200,000 more votes in November than they do now. That would have been enough to make sure Rick Perry never became governor. Those 200,000 Democratic Hispanic votes would have swept John Sharp into the lieutenant governor's office in 1998, meaning Rick Perry never would have taken Bush's place in the Governor's Mansion.
The stakes for Republicans will only get higher as the Hispanic population grows. The big threat isn't that Texas Hispanics might stop voting Republican as often as they do. The thing that keeps smart Republicans up at night is worrying that Hispanics will actually start voting. The Hispanic giant has been sleeping in Texas for so long that it's forgotten it's a giant.
Pineda said that smart Republicans know the danger of inflaming Hispanics. "You don't have to be ... ‘pro-immigrant.' You just have to avoid the racist rhetoric. You can even advocate strong borders without sitting there and doing commercials that have Latinos crawling under fences. You don't have to be super-permissive, you just don't pick a fight and use racist language. Go ahead and go to your little white audiences and talk about strong borders, and that's fine. Then you talk about what Latinos care about, too."
Texas Republicans reject the Bush-Perry model at their own peril. Texas Hispanics aren't uniformly pro-immigration, but if Texas Republicans undo the in-state tuition break for children of illegal immigrants and embrace an Alabama-style jihad on undocumented workers, all Republicans are likely to accomplish is turning this red state purple.