After Years on Top, Future Brings Challenges for State GOP

Steve Munisteri, campaigning for Texas GOP chairman at the party convention in Dallas.
Steve Munisteri, campaigning for Texas GOP chairman at the party convention in Dallas.

When Republicans talk about the future of their party, they do so with an eye firmly focused on the past.

“Early in my political days in Texas, there were two parties, but it was the Democratic Party and the conservative Democratic Party,” said political consultant Mark McKinnon. “There was no Republican Party.”

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

McKinnon has played on both sides of the political aisle. He worked on the campaigns of Texas Gov. Ann Richards and President George W. Bush. He says Bush caught the ear of many moderate and conservative Democrats with his talk of a limited but definite role for government. That brought the longtime minority party into power.

But McKinnon says the majority that voted in Bush as governor and turned the state Legislature completely red isn’t the same GOP today.

“What we’ve seen is an evolution from that compassionate conservative notion to an evolution dominated in large part in recent years by the Tea Party,” he said.

That evolution has pulled the party to a place that makes it more difficult to establish or maintain a majority nationally, he said.

In Texas, though, that same evolution only seems to have made the GOP stronger. Though the party was in control from 1998 to 2008, voting trends indicated a possible Republican decline. But the 2010 elections swept a tidal wave of Republicans into office, erasing that decade of decline.

And while Republicans in some states would be concerned about the nomination of a Tea Party insurgent like U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz, state party chairman Steve Munisteri says Cruz has been a team player.

“He’s thinking about what do we need to do to maintain the proper infrastructure in the party so that six years from now and 12 years from now and 18 years from now when he runs for re-election, not only will he win, but he’ll have some colleagues in Congress,” Munisteri said.

So for now, the party’s evolution or embrace of the Tea Party hasn’t hurt. But McKinnon says that just gives Texas Republicans extra time to focus on the real challenge.

“I think there’s a demographic issue,” McKinnon said. “There’s Hispanic ascendency in Texas. And the numbers are growing rapidly. And Hispanics largely vote Democratic. So we’re going to see that pendulum swing back again toward Democrats. And it shouldn’t be too long before we see statewide officeholders that are Democratic in Texas.”

That’s not a new idea, but it’s one Munisteri has taken to heart. He has put a huge effort into recruiting and engaging minorities. The state party now has a full-time minority-outreach director. The party has started monitoring when Hispanic groups meet and has a database to help target people the party feels should be voting Republican.

“It’s not just enough to say we want Hispanics to participate in our party,” Munisteri said. “You need to not only invite people but make them feel welcome and make them feel like it would be a worthwhile endeavor for them to spend their time doing that.”

He says that after a number of outreach efforts, the party started to see progress at this summer’s state convention. There were about 700 new Hispanic delegates. And when a new plank in the party’s immigration platform was offered with language backing a guest worker program, it passed with about 75 percent of the vote.

“There’s worry about whether the party rises to the challenge of meeting change circumstance,” he said. “But I still have optimism that that can be done, or I wouldn’t be wasting my time being state chairman.”

Munisteri says that if the party can reach the high-water mark achieved during the Bush presidential elections, when the party got about 50 percent of the Hispanic vote, the state will stay red.

“You tell me on the other hand that I’m only going to do one out of four Hispanics vote Republican, and I’ll tell you probably within two election cycles that this state will be competitive,” he said. “And within 10 years this state will probably go Democratic and stay Democratic for a very long time.”

So while next month’s elections in Texas aren’t really in doubt, Munisteri is eager to get the exit polls so he can see if the party’s efforts to bring Hispanics into the tent have paid off.

“We were at 35 percent last time,” he said. “So if we do anything above 35 percent, then I’ll take that as a sign of encouragement. Personally, if we can get up to 40 percent this election cycle of the Hispanic vote, I’ll be ecstatic.”

Well, as ecstatic as a self-proclaimed worrywart can get. Forty percent of the Hispanic vote would be great for the state GOP, but it won’t take long for Munisteri to turn his eyes to the next election and his hopes of getting closer to 50 percent.

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