It's only a matter of time, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, before Latinos become Texas' biggest ethnic group. From 2010-17, the state's total Latino population increased by about 1.4 million, from 9.7 million to 11.1 million. Over the same period, the state's white population grew by less than half a million people, from about 11.4 million to about 11.9 million.
Soon, by about 2022, according to the state demographer's office, those trend lines are going to cross, and a plurality of Texans will be Latino. What that means for state politics and Texas Republicans' hegemony at the Capitol is an open question.
Several things could kill, or at least temper, the dreams that inevitably start dancing in Democrats' heads whenever someone brings up the inevitable demise of Texas' white majority. First, population shifts, for a variety of reasons, don't always mean equivalent shifts in the voter pool. Second, Texas Republicans have shown the ability to win significant shares of the state's Latino electorate in the past. The current political environment, in which President Donald Trump is a historically unpopular figure among Latino voters, isn't going to last forever.
"Anglos are more represented [than Latinos] in the voting population by 2.5 times," says Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. "While the number of Latinos in Texas is very close, just slightly below the number of Anglos, more than twice as many Anglos are actually voting in Texas elections."
Latino voters won't overcome that gap and become the dominant force in Texas politics as quickly as the demographics shift. As Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a lecturer at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, told the Observer in 2016, Latinos new to Texas often lack the generational political loyalties that lead to things like high voter turnout. While that could change as new immigration slows down and Texas' Latino population gets older, Texas Democrats still can't rely on simple demographics to turn the state back to their party.
"I'm cautious to equate the demographic shift in Texas with it automatically turning blue," DeFrancesco Soto said. "I mean, it will — Latinos are Democrats, for the most part, or independents, but that assumes Republicans stay as conservative as they are. Remember George W. Bush's second gubernatorial election — he got 49 percent [of the Latino vote]."
Whether Republicans can make similar inroads with Texas' growing Latino population as it builds political power over the coming decades will come down to the choices that Republicans make on issues like immigration. If they continue to be seen as cruel, as they have been during the aftermath of Trump's travel ban and his recent decision to separate children from their parents when they crossed the country's southern border, Republicans could lose Latino voters when they can least afford to do so.
"Basically, I think you can contrast the Dan Patrick versus Rick Perry approach," Jones says. "If all Republicans were like Rick Perry, you wouldn't have a significant disconnect between obtaining a significant percentage of the Latino vote and the policies pursued by Republican officeholders. Perry was always very astute in avoiding issues that would've damaged his standing and that of the Republican Party among Latinos who otherwise would be favorably disposed to vote for Republicans. He always focused on border security. He never focused on anything that would've involved the deportation of Latinos already in the country."
Once Trump is out of office, Jones says, he expects Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to pull back on some of his more draconian immigration-related positions. He's not sure if Patrick, the lieutenant governor, and Attorney General Ken Paxton will follow Abbott's lead.
"I think Abbott still wants to try to occupy ground that is similar, if a little bit to the right, of where Rick Perry was," Jones says. "It's not clear at all to me that Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are interested in doing that. I think they still have a much more short-term vision that's focused on Republican primary voters. They seem much less concerned about the future of the party. They're much more focused on winning in 2018 and perhaps winning the Republican primary in 2022 for whatever office that might be, but they're unconcerned about where the party will go in the 2020s."
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