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Against the National Grain, Texas Republicans Dominated in Election

As Democratic victories in races across the nation left Republicans with several questions, Texas Republicans enjoyed another statewide sweep.

Ted Cruz with daughter Caroline at his election watch party in Houston on Nov. 6, 2012.

Democratic victories across the nation left Republican voters and activists with the political version of a hangover last week. In the alternate universe known as Texas, they are blaming the Champagne.

Republicans here are celebrating another statewide sweep. They held onto huge majorities in the Legislature and the Texas congressional delegation. And at a time of increasing angst about their ability to thrive as the Hispanic population grows, the Texas Republican Party has fielded the first Hispanic U.S. senator from Texas — Ted Cruz.

“Thank God for Texas,” Chris Turner, a Republican consultant, said in a post-election speech to Republican activists in a conservative suburb of Austin. He said, joking, that the state might consider using stimulus money “to build a moat around our northern border.”

Nationwide, conservatives watched as Democrats scored come-from-behind victories in some red-state U.S. Senate contests and thinned out the Republican Party’s majority in the U.S. House. Victories by gay rights proponents and supporters of legalized pot did nothing to lift their spirits.

They could take solace, though, in the nation’s second-largest state, where full-throated conservative Rick Perry has been governor for a dozen years and no one is betting he will be replaced by a Democrat anytime soon. Perry was not on the ballot this year, so the big question on Election Day was the margin of victory in Texas for the men at the top of the ticket, Mitt Romney and Cruz. It turned out to be about 57 percent each.

Texas is the only majority-minority state that is reliably Republican, and it has gone longer without a Democrat in statewide office than any other state, according to PolitiFact Texas.

“We are the tomato in the blue sea,” said Peggy Venable, a conservative activist and director of the Texas branch of Americans for Prosperity. “We truly are different. I had people across the country that called me last night saying, ‘I’m moving to Texas.’”

There are some caveats to the victory narrative. Just as Republicans had some bright spots nationally, Democrats in Texas are crowing about a handful of electoral successes here.

In the state’s only congressional swing district, state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, was declared the winner against U.S. Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco, R-San Antonio, though Canseco has not conceded. State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, whose defeat would have brought Republicans one vote shy of an unbreakable two-thirds majority in that chamber, hung on in a district drawn to elect a Republican. And, with an influx of minority voters over the last decade, there will be more Democrats in the Legislature as a result of a redistricting process.

Scattered among the state’s election results are some warning signs for Republicans looking at a future that might not be as accommodating to their policy prescriptions and sometimes harsh rhetoric on hot-button social issues.

At the top of the ticket, Democrats were either tied with or dominating Republicans in four of the five largest counties, forcing Republicans to count on ever-larger margins in predominately white suburban and rural areas to stay on top.

Democrats, meanwhile, picked off three Republican incumbents in legislative races, but none of their own lost re-election contests. Three Republican incumbents also lost races — to little-known Democrats with Hispanic surnames — for seats on the 4th Court of Appeals in heavily Hispanic South Texas.

In a state where Hispanics make up 38 percent of the population — and about half of the non-adults — results like that worry some Republicans.

“This election cycle was a preview of what’s coming and what is here already in some areas of the state of Texas,” said state Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, who did not seek re-election. “If Republicans don’t adapt to the changing demographics, then they will die.’’ He said with the rapidly changing population and political environment, that could happen sooner rather than later.

Anthony Holm, a Republican consultant in Texas, said a hard-line stance on immigration in particular has hurt Republican efforts to woo Hispanics, who tend to be socially conservative and pro-business.

“If we took that off the table, we would get a lot of their votes,” Holm said. “We have to find a way to get immigration resolved that we can live with.”

The drift toward more strident debates over illegal immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon in Texas. Republican leaders, including former President George W. Bush, traditionally stood apart from their national counterparts on the issue, using a softer approach favored by businesses that are dependent on migrant labor.

As president, Bush sought a guest-worker program that ultimately failed because of opposition from fellow Republicans. A decade later, during the 2012 Republican presidential race, Perry, his successor as Texas governor, famously stood by his support for a 2001 law that gives young illegal immigrants in-state college tuition rates. But Romney pounded him for it, and Perry paid a hefty price during the primary season.

Both Perry and Cruz, now senator-elect, have harshly criticized President Obama’s executive order allowing the same type of young immigrants — those who were brought here illegally by their parents but have stayed out of trouble — to get two-year work visas.  Cruz called the order “lawless” and said during the campaign he wanted a President Romney to overturn it.

Texas was not among the states where a news media consortium conducted exit polls, so how much Hispanic support there was for Cruz in his Senate race remains an open question. A review of the returns from several overwhelmingly Hispanic border counties in South Texas suggest he slightly outperformed Romney.

In Webb County, which includes Laredo, Romney got 22 percent of the vote, compared with 31 percent for Cruz; the presidential nominee got 30 percent of the vote in El Paso County, while Cruz won 36 percent.

While Romney and Cruz got lopsided support from white voters, as the presidential ticket did nationally, pre-election surveys by Mike Baselice suggest Romney did 12 to 15 percentage points better with Hispanics in Texas than in California. Obama's big share of the Latino vote in California more closely mirrors his performance in battleground states.

After comparing surveys from California and Texas, Baselice also said Hispanics self-identify as moderate and conservative at significantly higher rates in Texas. In California, 37 percent of Hispanics call themselves conservative, 30 percent say they’re moderate and 33 percent embrace the liberal label.

In Texas, 46 percent of Hispanics say they are conservative, 36 percent are moderate and 18 percent say they are liberal, Baselice said.

For Democrats, the day when Hispanics vote in high enough numbers to help put them back into statewide competition cannot come soon enough. Richard Morrison, a Democrat, barely won his re-election as a Fort Bend county commissioner — over a Republican abandoned by his own county party after records showed he had voted in both Texas and Pennsylvania three times, an alleged felony.

“Someone is going to have to come down here and invest significant money on turning out the Latino population. It’s going to take about $25 million,’’ Morrison said. “Until they do that we’re just going to be in the same spot.’’

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