Wall Street Journal
By NEIL KING JR.
AUSTIN, Texas — Soon after Texas Republicans notched another round of lopsided wins last November, the state GOP sent notice to its local chapters: Please stop holding party meetings in country clubs.
Other advice followed. Please consider hosting Republican recruiting tables at naturalization ceremonies. Word spread among state GOP lawmakers to back off on bills targeting illegal immigrants in the legislative session.
In no state is the Republican grip at once so firm, and under such challenge from Democrats, as it is in Texas. And nowhere is that grip of more consequence to the fortunes of the national GOP.
Republicans have won all of Texas’ 29 statewide offices since 1994, the longest streak of single-party dominance in the country. Republican Rick Perry is the state’s longest-serving governor. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney took Texas in a walk last year, beating Barack Obama by a margin four percentage points wider than Sen. John McCain did in 2008.
But Republicans here are suddenly looking over their shoulder, worried that demographic shifts and a big push by Democrats to capitalize could soon turn the state into the ultimate battleground between the two parties. One of the most important backroom players in President Obama’s 2012 campaign has launched a broad effort to pull the state into the Democratic column.
No one questions the enormity of the stakes. If the country’s second-largest state turns blue—a possibility Democrats say is at most a decade away—Republicans could find their most viable path to the White House blocked.
Some Republicans scoff at the thought of Texas ever tipping back to the Democrats. Gov. Perry, in a recent interview, dismissed the idea as “a pipe dream” more far-fetched than the University of Texas adopting the colors of archrival Texas A&M.
“We are not despairing. Far from it,” said Steve Munisteri, the feisty chairman of the Texas GOP, who is girding for the fight ahead. “But nor are we taking anything for granted.” Among other things, Republicans say that many Hispanics are drawn to the party’s more-conservative social stands.
Other party leaders are more cautious. “To call the last national election anything but a wake-up call would be remiss,” said Carolyn Hodges, president of the Texas Federation of Republican Women, which has 163 chapters and more than 11,000 members. “If we Republicans don’t find a way to remake and repackage ourselves, this state could go from being bright red to blue really fast.”
As both parties dig in, neither side disputes the basic facts.
Texas is one of just four states—California, New Mexico and Hawaii are the others—where non-Hispanic whites, at 45%, are in the minority. Hispanics, who went heavily Democratic in the 2012 national vote, now represent 38% of the Texas population. By 2016, nearly a million more Hispanics will be eligible to vote in Texas, more than quadruple the number of eligible new Anglo voters, according to several forecasts. Other new residents continue to pour in from an array of traditionally Democratic states, particularly California.
Meanwhile, Texas has some of the country’s lowest voter-participation rates, especially among groups that typically skew Democratic, That leads some Democrats to compare the state to a vast oil field that has yet to be tapped. The state has 13.6 million registered voters. But Democrats say there are nearly three million eligible but unregistered Hispanics and African Americans, and at least half that many who are registered but don’t vote.
Mr. Romney won Texas by a margin of 1.2 million votes in November.
Republicans’ desire to shore up their standing with this growing Hispanic bloc has some in the party scrambling to change their immigration stance.
The state party dramatically changed its official platform last year, eliminating references to mass deportations and calling for a guest-worker program. In January, the Texas Federation of Republican Women went further, voting to support a federal path to citizenship for millions of immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
But both of the state’s Republican senators, including the party’s own top Hispanic lawmaker, Sen. Ted Cruz, oppose opening a route to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally.
Sensing opportunity, a band of former top Obama campaign operatives have just launched the most ambitious effort to date to loosen the GOP grip. Their goal: Make Texas competitive by the second half of the decade and eventually tip it for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since Jimmy Carter won here in 1976.
Led by former Obama field director Jeremy Bird, the Battleground Texas project plans to marshal much the same manpower and data-mining the Obama campaign used to swing states such as Colorado and Virginia in the past two elections.
Wiry and bespectacled, Mr. Bird likes to describe how the past two Obama campaigns were littered with foot soldiers from Texas laboring in other states. Texas volunteers made more than 400,000 calls into Florida in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign, he said.
“For years you have been giving to the national campaign,” he told a packed ballroom of 300 or so Texas Democratic volunteers in San Antonio recently on his first public swing through the state. “Now it’s time the national campaign gave back to you.”
Mr. Bird and other Democrats say Texas, because its vote has been so one-sided in national elections, has been all but untouched by the precinct-by-precinct arts of modern voter mobilization. “Texans haven’t seen a presidential TV ad on anything but cable since Jimmy Carter,” said Mr. Bird. “That should tell you something.”
Democrats point to a little-noted mobilization drive called the 21 Precinct Project that the Travis County Democratic Party ran in the largely Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods of East Austin.
In the fall of 2010, the party combed through data to identify 23,452 households where residents were registered, and likely to be Democrats, but rarely voted. A team of 41 volunteers and paid staff then spent five weeks calling and visiting those homes, urging them to vote. The project cost a little over $40,000.
The results were startling: a 54% jump in straight-ticket Democratic voting, and a turnout rate nearly 20% higher than the rest of Travis County.
The conclusion, according to county Democratic chairman Andy Brown, who ran the drive: “People respond if you ask for their vote. And in Texas, millions of people have never been asked.”
Austin resident Santos Martinez is one recent convert to the voting process. Born in Laredo, Texas, 46 years ago, Mr. Martinez says he “never really paid attention to voting, never really cared about it.” A community activist group convinced him to register and cast his first vote last year, which he did, for President Obama and every other Democrat on the ticket.
“Now I tell my son, ‘Don’t wait like me,’ ” said Mr. Martinez, who works as a maintenance man. “‘When you get the chance, vote.'”
Over lunch at a packed restaurant south of downtown San Antonio, Mayor Julián Castro beams at the Democrats’ chances in the years ahead. After giving the keynote address at the Democratic Party convention in September, Mr. Castro dropped into Virginia, Florida and Nevada as a campaign surrogate for President Obama. What he saw stunned him.
“The sheer intensity of the campaigning there, the all-out effort to find and mobilize votes, was unlike anything I have ever seen in Texas,” he said.
Mr. Castro contends the Republican room for growth in Texas is minimal. “But we Democrats,” he said, “we haven’t even begun to pick the low-hanging fruit.”
He and his twin brother, Joaquin, now a freshman member of Congress, are themselves barometers of the shift under way in Texas. Few expect Texas to become truly competitive for Democrats by 2014 or even 2016. The dream among liberals is that both Castro brothers would run in 2018: one for governor and the other for the Senate seat now held by Sen. Cruz.
Mayor Castro, at 38, says he has no plans for now to seek higher office, but he agrees with the time frame. “Texas,” he said, “will be competitive in six to eight years.”
Republican Gov. Perry’s pollster, Mike Baselice, has a different view. Hispanic support for Republican statewide candidates, he says, has hovered around 35% for years—higher than the 27% Mr. Romney got nationally last year. If the GOP can sustain that, he argues, its hold on the state should remain firm until early in the next decade.
Still, the party establishment isn’t taking things for granted. At Republican headquarters two blocks from the state Capitol, Mr. Munisteri, the Republican chairman, keeps an 8-inch-thick binder on his desk stuffed with polling data on Hispanic attitudes toward his party. The poll, conducted in December, was the first of its kind ever commissioned by the state GOP.
Some of the poll’s findings—that Hispanics largely see the GOP as the party of the rich bent on eliminating the social safety net—underscore the Republican challenge.
But Mr. Munisteri hammers on the positive: how 40% of Texas Hispanics call themselves conservatives, and how Mr. Romney in November got more than 35% of the state Hispanic vote last year, in contrast to Mr. Romney’s tepid performance nationally.
Other statewide Republican candidates, the poll found, outpaced Mr. Romney by claiming closer to 40% of the Hispanic vote. “If we can maintain levels like that, we can win elections here until I die,” Mr. Munisteri said.
Joe Gomez, a 49-year-old businessman and lifelong Republican in San Antonio, is eager to see his party change and diversify, both in its candidates and its voter base. “We need to change the entire image of who a Republican voter is,” he said. “If we don’t, the party is heading for disaster and will eventually die.”
Several groups have sprung up to recruit and fund conservative Hispanic candidates, including one founded in 2010 by George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and nephew of former President George W. Bush. The younger Bush, whose mother was born in Mexico, recently announced plans to run for Texas land commissioner next year, his first foray into elected office.
His group, Hispanic Republicans of Texas, spent around $300,000 on training and supporting local Latino candidates last year, a sum the group expects will more than double going into the 2014 election.
At the same time, the state party began a drive last year to recruit hundreds of new Hispanic GOP party delegates to the party by calling all Hispanic-surnamed residents who voted in the last Republican primary.
David Zapata, the 30-year-old son of Mexican immigrants who runs the party’s Latino outreach, said it isn’t enough to win voters.
“Voters are great, but we need active participants,” he said. “We need new people, new faces, who will be a permanent part of the party.”
The GOP’s most palpable shift has come on the immigration front. Republican lawmakers introduced over 100 immigration-related bills in the past legislative session, including measures to deny cheaper in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants and to overturn laws in several Texas cities that offered refuge to undocumented workers.
This session, with the filing deadline now past, fewer than five such bills have been put forward.
“Let’s just say we are taking a different tone this year,” said Republican state Rep. Larry Gonzales, who represents a district just north of Austin. “We’re focusing on things we can control, like jobs, education and water.”
Both parties are now rolling out the full martial lexicon as they brace for the fight ahead. Mr. Bird says his Battleground Texas project will spend tens of millions of dollars to wage a statewide Democratic voter mobilization drive that will focus first on the most promising counties and work out from there.
Speaking of the Republicans, Mr. Bird said with a grin: “If I were them, I would be scared.”
From GOP headquarters, Mr. Munisteri said he has heard big talk from the Democrats before. “But if they do roll out the big guns, we won’t stand by,” he said, “All artillery fire will be responded to in kind.”
Write to Neil King Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org