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With Texas Republicans, It's the Game of the Name

Conventional wisdom is that candidates with Hispanic surnames have a hard time winning statewide Republican primaries, but that appears to be fading. The problem now is down the ballot, where they're trying to get re-elected.

U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz speaks at the Texas Tea party rally Sunday May 6, 2012 at the Texas Capitol.  Cruz is trailing frontrunner David Dewhurst in the race to replace current Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

This is news: Ted Cruz’s name didn’t hurt him.

This is why it’s news: Xavier Rodriguez, Tony Garza, Victor Carrillo. Each lost a Republican primary for statewide office and either the candidates or someone nearby blamed their losses on their Hispanic names.

Maybe it’s true. But political candidates and campaigns never blame themselves for losses, and it’s hard to tell whether the name thing really hurts. It became conventional wisdom without any scientific testing. And it may be fading away.

Republicans are trying to win Hispanic votes in Texas and to wipe out their reputation as the party of Anglos in a state where they are no longer the majority of the population. So the name thing is encouraging. The bad news for Republicans is that they’re not always great at protecting the Hispanics they have already elected.

Cruz battled his way into a Republican primary runoff for the U.S. Senate with David Dewhurst, a sitting lieutenant governor. It’s been a knock-down, drag-out fight featuring Chinese tire companies, dancing suits, pocket Constitutions and dozens of forums featuring everyone but the front-runner.

The race turned, arguably, on voters’ conflicting desires to stick with proven, experienced conservatives and to replace incumbents with fresh faces and ideas. Dewhurst isn’t an incumbent — Kay Bailey Hutchison’s Senate seat is up for grabs — but he acted like one. Cruz hasn’t run for office before, but he has seized on the national taste for insurgent politics.

Maybe Texas Republicans ignored his Hispanic surname because they like the fire in his voice when he asks for their help storming the castle. Maybe it’s no longer an obstacle. Either way, it didn’t seem to play in this election.

Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina was also on the Republican ballot, asking voters for another term. He’s in a runoff, but don’t blame his name. Blame a 2007 fire that started in the garage of his uninsured home, a complicated story that got the judge indicted on an arson charge — which was thrown out by Harris County prosecutors and never pursued. Medina and his lawyers said the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction. Suffice to say that the judge’s name isn’t his most formidable political problem.

After the 2010 elections and a few party-switching raids on the Democrats, Texas Republicans boasted of their growing number of Hispanic officeholders, particularly in the Texas House. But they haven’t protected them.

Aaron Peña of Edinburg switched to the Republican Party after the 2010 elections. He was rewarded in the new maps with a Democratic district and decided not to seek another term in the House.

John Garza of San Antonio won in a House district that was mildly surprised to find itself electing a Republican. Now he is in a district — blame those mappers again — where Democrats have an even shot.

Larry Gonzales of Round Rock, a former political consultant who won a House seat, is a bright spot for the Republicans. He drew only a Libertarian opponent this year and will almost certainly be back.

Dee Margo of El Paso has a House district that can swing from the Republicans to the Democrats. He’s always in danger, and remains so this year in spite of Republican attempts to map him into a safe seat. The courts redrew it, and he will face a serious challenge in November.

J.M. Lozano of Kingsville was elected as a Democrat in 2010 and now has switched to the Republicans. In his first crack at that, he landed squarely in the runoffs, where he'll face Bill Wilson II, an architect who apparently didn’t get a memo telling him that the new member of the family was supposed to get a free pass.

Jose Aliseda of Beeville decided to go home after one term to run for district attorney. If he had stayed, he would be in the same district as Lozano, facing an electorate that could easily elect a Democrat instead of a Republican in November.

And Raul Torres of Corpus Christi decided to run for the state Senate after being paired with another Republican in his House district. It’s an uphill fight against Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, on turf more hospitable to a Democrat.

At least his name won’t hurt him.

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2012 elections