The GOP's Hispanic high hopes

George W. Bush's symbolic gestures to the Texas Latino community have gone a long way. But will the approach work in states like California?

Published December 7, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

On Sept. 2, Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush gave a major educational policy speech to the Latin Business Association in Los Angeles. The speech highlighted the stark contrast between Bush and Vice President Al Gore in their efforts to court the increasingly significant Latino electorate. It also illustrates why George W. Bush has made such historic gains among Latino voters back in his home state.

While Gore continues to court Latinos by insisting that they are still excluded from the mainstream and therefore deserve protected status through affirmative action programs, Bush has developed a powerful and optimistic message of inclusion and unity. Typically, when speaking to Latino audiences, the Texas governor stresses Latinos' ability to overcome persistent obstacles. In his address to the Latin Business Association, Bush deftly balanced challenges with opportunities. He lauded business leaders for creating "a Latino economic miracle," even as he insisted that America must close the academic-achievement gap between whites and minorities.

Many political analysts and Latino activists have correctly pointed out that Bush's Hispanic appeal is largely symbolic. They are confident that Latino voters will base their votes on policy and not on posturing. But as one examines Bush's success with Latino voters in his gubernatorial reelection campaign in 1998, the power of ethnic symbolism should not be underestimated.

Last year, a combination of his symbolic appeal and Democratic inertia conspired to help Bush win an unprecedented percentage of Latino votes in Texas. His success in his home state serves as a cautionary tale for Democrats across the country. As the GOP first began to emerge as a major force in Texas politics in the late 1970s, Democrats found comfort in the belief that they could rely indefinitely on the traditional loyalty of the state's growing Mexican-American population. Since the 1980s, conventional wisdom has held that in order to win statewide elections, Democrats would have to offset the Republican urban vote by garnering large margins of victory in heavily Latino south Texas. But that did not happen in 1998. Bush received 40 percent of the state's Latino vote, unprecedented for any Anglo Republican statewide candidate.

Pundits have credited Bush's strong showing among Texas Latinos in 1998 either to his message of compassionate conservatism or to his limited Spanish-language skills. While much of Bush's appeal came by default -- both a weak and underfunded Democratic opponent and a strong economy served the incumbent well -- the good will Bush did manage to earn among many Hispanic voters was hard won and had little to do with language, ideology or partisanship

Bush's one-time success in winning 40 percent of the Hispanic vote is specific to the governor and does not presage a Latino political mutiny toward the GOP. However, it does provide an important model of how a strong, ethnically sensitive GOP candidate can capture significant numbers of Hispanic votes.

Undoubtedly thinking ahead to his presidential bid in 2000, Bush made unprecedented -- and electorally unnecessary -- efforts to court voters in traditionally Democratic, heavily Mexican-American counties. He made repeated visits to El Paso, a place statewide Republican candidates routinely write off and which Democratic candidates long have taken for granted. There he tapped into the city's strong sense of isolation from Austin and made compelling arguments about how the future of Texas rests on the well-being of the border region.

"Gov. Bush has given El Paso and the border unprecedented attention," says Mike Acosta, associate director of the Texas Centers for Border Economic Development. Rejecting the old images of the border as a haven for crime, drugs and pollution, Bush has argued that the region was an asset rather than a liability. Because in Texas parlance the border is synonymous with Mexican Americans, this economic message has ethnic implications. "When you say the border is good, you're saying Mexicans are good," says Thomas Longoria, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. "When you say the border is worth investing in, you're saying that Mexicans are worth investing in."

However, Bush could not point to a substantive policy record when wooing voters along the border. Still grappling with the sometimes destabilizing effects of NAFTA, the Border region -- which includes several of the poorest counties in the United States -- has received no clear political benefits from the popular Republican governor. In fact, at the end of the last legislative session, Bush let die a bipartisan package that would have funded infrastructure improvements along the border.

Nevertheless, many voters felt that Bush's mere attention to the region was enough of a reason to vote for him. Last November, the governor received 39 percent of the Mexican-American vote in El Paso, enough to put him over the top and make him the first Republican gubernatorial candidate ever to win there. Carlos Ramirez, the Democratic mayor of El Paso, who endorsed the governor's reelection campaign, claims that Bush's Hispanic outreach has made the Mexican-American vote more competitive than before. "You can't vote straight ticket anymore," he says. "You have to exercise your political muscle."

Bush has continued that strategy as he takes his campaign national. He continues not only to court black and Latino business groups, but he regularly visits low-income schools and minority neighborhoods. His speeches at these schools vary little from his standard stump speech, and still have more to do with style than substance. How else to explain the campaign's recent unveiling of Spanish-language radio ads in Iowa?

An unintended byproduct of Bush's "Tejano" strategy has been to give the Hispanic electorate more clout, at least for the moment. "One of the real winners [last November] was the Mexican-American voter," says Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas Pan American. "Clearly, they're the vote to be courted. With Republicans making gains among Latino voters, the Democrats can no longer take that vote for granted."

The same can be said for Latinos nationwide. The Bush campaign has forced Gore in particular to campaign hard in places that had been considered Democratic bastions. Whether the strategy will pay off for Bush remains to be seen.

During the 1980s, former San Antonio Mayor Henry G. Cisneros not only embodied the hopes of Texas' ascendant Mexican population, he represented the future of the Democratic Party in Texas. Statewide strategists had hoped that Cisneros, who was as effective in the barrio as he was in the board room, would one day bring to all of Texas what was perhaps his most valued political skill back home: his ability to appeal to Anglos even as he galvanized a Latino base. Many believe that, had it not been for personal scandal, Cisneros would have long ago been elected either Texas governor or U.S. senator. And that would have guaranteed the Democrats' fortunes with Latino voters.

But when Cisneros left elected office in 1989, Texas Democrats didn't have another potential statewide Latino candidate of his stature to turn to. And they still don't. Despite the party's heavy reliance on Hispanics -- the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus makes up roughly half of the Democrats in the state House -- the Democratic leadership has been slow in recruiting and supporting viable Latino candidates for state office.

In perhaps the strongest sign of his commitment to broadening the base of his party, Bush has made it a point to create diverse tickets. Last November, he strongly supported former Secretary of State Tony Garza's successful bid for railroad commissioner. His administration has already created a dream team GOP ticket for Texas in November 2000. If Bush wins the Republican nomination for president, he will be at the top of the ballot. Right below him would be a female candidate, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Third and forth would be Al Gonzalez, a Bush-appointee to the Texas Supreme Court and Michael Williams, an African-American railroad commissioner who was also appointed by the governor.

By contrast, the top of the Democratic ticket in Texas during next year's presidential election will likely be comprised of four white males. "It's an embarrassment to our party," says Democrat Rene Oliveira, chair of the Ways and Means Committee in the Texas House and head of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

Many Democratic Latino officials share Olivera's frustration that their party has done little to reach out to Hispanics over the past decade. Former Attorney General Dan Morales blames inertia and general disarray for the party's inattention to such a crucial constituency. "The Republican Party is doing a better job creating diverse tickets," he says. "And we're just standing here twiddling our thumbs." Now in private practice in Austin, Morales says he had to fight the Democratic apparatus when he first sought the Democratic nomination for statewide office in 1990. Ironically, his own personal decision not to run for reelection last November handed Bush another advantage in an already lopsided race.

Bush faces a much more difficult road in California, the nation's largest state and political grand prize with 54 electoral college votes. Unlike Texas, the Democratic Party controls the governor's mansion, both state houses and both U.S. Senate seats in the Golden State. It is also a state in which Latinos, galvanized by ethnic scapegoating, have been registering and voting overwhelmingly Democrat over the past five years. It is, in many ways the opposite image of Texas, and will be the real test of Bush's Latino appeal next fall if he is the Republican presidential nominee.

In his home state, Bush has been immensely successful in limiting the political discussion to only a few core issues. To his credit, he consciously steered clear of discussing immigration in his first term and in his reelection campaign. He could not have succeeded with his moderate, inclusive message had he not challenged the cultural conservatism of the state GOP. Not wanting to incite the kind of pro-Democratic Latino backlash that former California Gov. Pete Wilson created in that state, Bush encouraged restraint on hot button issues. And much to the dismay of state Democrats, the right wing of the GOP respected Bush's popularity enough not to force him to take a stand on the topic. "Thirty-three billion dollars in trade with Mexico buys a hell of a lot of [ethnic] tolerance in Texas," says Arnold Garcia Jr., the editorial page editor of the Austin American-Statesman.

But neither economic imperatives nor presidential aspirations fully account for Bush's tactful dealings with Mexican-Americans in Texas. Not unlike President Clinton's relationship to African-Americans, Bush seems to have a rapport with Mexican-Americans that comes from experience. What he doesn't know he learns from senior media advisor Lionel Sosa, a veteran Latino advertising guru from San Antonio. Sosa crafted Bush's brilliant Latino-targeted campaign ads in 1998. In both English and Spanish, the radio and television spots stressed the commonality of values between Texas Anglos and Mexicans. While soft-selling the Bush "name brand," the ads revisited the message that the hard work, pride and strong family values of Mexican-Americans are quintessentially Texan. "They reach the heart of Mexican values," says San Antonio political consultant Richard Gambitta. "It's really corazon conservatism. Bush has embraced cultural symbols without developing policy that would help many Latinos move up the economic ladder."

The challenge for Bush now is to repair the national image of his party, the way he did in Texas. The party has been marked nationally with the stigma of intolerance in the wake of President Clinton's impeachment, and the Bush tag lines of compassionate conservatism and prosperity with a purpose are aimed at reversing that perception.

Even if Bush is successful in piggy-backing Latino support to the White House, his Republican colleagues may have a hard time finding his coattails among Hispanic voters. Even as significant numbers of Hispanics crossed party lines to support Bush in 1998, they still voted heavily Democratic at the bottom of the ticket. In short, there is little indication that they were abandoning the Democratic Party. Despite the novelty of Bush's Latino strategy, it was only a matter of time that Texas Republicans began to court Hispanic voters in earnest.

Demographers predict that Anglos will become a minority in the state by 2008. Currently 13 percent of all Texas voters and 15 percent of the California electorate are Latino. Within a decade it will be difficult for any candidate to carry the two states without some measure of Latino support.

Nonetheless, given that the Republicans' rise to prominence in the South began with Richard M. Nixon's "Southern strategy" -- the use of racial wedge issues to drive traditional white voters to the GOP -- it is nothing less than historic that a conservative Texas governor would seek to solidify his power by pushing a message of ethnic cooperation. In Texas, even Bush's detractors credit the governor for placing Latinos more firmly on the political radar than they've ever been before. The latest polls show Bush and Gore running dead even among Latino voters in Texas. The governor's chances of polling anywhere near 40 percent of Hispanic voters in California are virtually non-existent. But no matter how Bush fares among Latinos in his bid for president, he has already upped the ante on what it will take to win over this growing and increasingly important electorate. If nothing else, Bush's Latino outreach has put smug Democratic strategists on notice.

By Gregory Rodriguez

Gregory Rodriguez is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion section and a research scholar at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy. He is also a fellow at the New America Foundation.

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