Following this summer’s divisive abortion debate in the state Legislature, Texas Republicans see an opening for the 2014 election as they work to reach out to Hispanic voters who could be spurred to the polls by the party’s anti-abortion stance.
But Democrats see the plan as a losing proposition for Republicans, arguing that the reputation of most Hispanics as socially conservative is inaccurate and that Hispanics tend to side with Democrats on the issues that matter most to them.
As Texas’ demographics continue to shift, it is easy to see why both sides covet the Hispanic vote. The state’s population is 38 percent Hispanic. Although less than one-third of eligible voters in Texas today are Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics are expected to make up a plurality of the state's population by 2020.
Enrique Marquez, a Republican political consultant, said Democratic organizations and candidates in Texas were “completely out of sync” on abortion with Hispanics, who are predominantly Catholic. Marquez added that if Texas Republicans discussed their anti-abortion views and religious beliefs while still placing a priority on the economy, they could have a winning formula in 2014.
“Family values is a very powerful issue among the Hispanic electorate, but jobs still remain the top concern,” he said.
The Republican National Committee recently announced its own efforts to connect with the state’s Hispanic electorate by creating targeted outreach teams to knock on doors and educate voters on the party’s stances on several issues, including abortion.
But if abortion is a crucial part of such efforts, Republicans will find the strategy an exercise in futility, said state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint. “This is one of those issues where stereotypes are problematic,” she said, referring to the assumption that Hispanics oppose abortion.
But González acknowledged that many Hispanics supported the Democratic Party on issues like immigration, education and health care, not necessarily because of most Democrats’ support for abortion rights.
If Republicans’ efforts to reach Hispanics during the 2014 campaign do put a focus on abortion, they will be breaking new ground. Politicking on that issue has so far been uncommon among Hispanics.
Culturally, Hispanics see abortion as largely a private matter, and there is not a formidable group of political activists in the Rio Grande Valley who are outspoken about abortion rights, according to Kathryn Hearn, the community services director at the Planned Parenthood Association of Hidalgo County.
Planned Parenthood clinics in South Texas serve a predominantly Hispanic population and do not perform abortions. There are two abortion facilities operated by other providers in McAllen and Harlingen that serve residents in South Texas.
Patients sometimes struggle to discuss abortion and commonly use euphemisms to talk about the procedure, even when talking to clinicians, Hearn said.
“When it comes to our patients and this community, this is not a sound-bite issue,” Hearn said. “It’s so personal that sometimes even after someone has had an abortion, it’s sometimes difficult for them to tell us.”
Amber Salinas, a community organizer for the Texas Organizing Project, a grassroots political advocacy group in the Rio Grande Valley, said abortion was not a mobilizing issue in the region.
“For the people here, there are so many other things that impact them more on a daily basis — living paycheck to paycheck and being able to put shoes on their kids,” Salinas said.
According to a June University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 60 percent of Hispanics in Texas said they supported a ban on abortions after 20 weeks (such a ban was passed this summer), and 49 percent said abortion laws were strict enough or should be made less strict.
Of the 58 percent of Hispanic respondents who identify as Democrats, most said they identified with the party without strictly holding uniformly Democratic attitudes.
Some Republicans say that is an important point to remember as the party plans strategies for the 2014 election.
“If you listen to talk radio and the pundits, in many instances those who speak the loudest for the Republican Party are offensive to the Hispanic community,” said state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas.
He said the key was engaging with Hispanics individually, helping them realize they stand on the same side of several issues with Republicans, including abortion, and not treating Hispanics as a “monolithic voting bloc.”
The abortion issue is sure to come up often in the top 2014 Texas race, the face-off for governor.
Since announcing his candidacy for governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott has repeatedly linked Hispanic ideals on family values to the Republican Party’s position against abortion while courting the Hispanic vote in the reliably red state.
On the Democratic side, state Sen. Wendy Davis, whose 11-hour filibuster of an omnibus abortion bill propelled her and the issue onto the national stage this year, has mostly avoided the subject since declaring her candidacy.
Democrats have largely painted the abortion battle as a Republican war on women and have expanded the debate into a fight over women’s health and access to health care, which they hope resonates with Hispanic voters.
But Abbott’s efforts to highlight the differences in beliefs between the Republican and Democratic parties have been matched by right-wing organizations that have aired bilingual radio spots in South Texas that paint Davis as an “abortion zealot” who is backed by extremist groups.
“Wendy Davis puts late-term abortion ahead of our faith, our families and Texas values,” the script of one ad read.
The abortion debate could prove harmful for Republicans. Following a court ruling to lift an injunction on restrictions set in place by the abortion law, the only two abortion clinics in South Texas discontinued abortion services Friday.
But the Hispanic community is not a single-issue voting group, and immigration and education continue to be among their top concerns — two issues that Republicans do not usually spin positively, according to Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
“Republicans don’t have much to offer them on those two issues, so they push limits on abortion, knowing that Hispanics are more conservative than most Democrats on that issue,” Jillson said.
Until Republicans connect with voters on immigration and education policy, Jillson says, they will not improve their share of the Hispanic vote despite promoting their anti-abortion platform.
This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.