Fighting the perception that Hispanic candidates struggle to win statewide Republican primaries, many party officials have pointed to the 2014 land commissioner’s race, which features George P. Bush, the odds-on favorite, whose mother was born in Mexico.
But many political observers in Texas say that Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, should not be seen as the start of a trend. After all, Bush has a famous — and non-Hispanic — name. Candidates with Hispanic surnames are still expected to face challenges in Republican primaries in Texas.
Bush, the founder of a Fort Worth-based investment firm and a co-founder of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas political action committee, is running against David Watts, an East Texas businessman, in the 2014 Republican primary. The winner will face John Cook, a Democrat and a former mayor of El Paso, and Steven Childs, a Libertarian.
Bush declined to be interviewed for this article, but a spokesman, Kasey Pipes, said Bush was proud of his Hispanic heritage and believed “his conservative values are a natural fit for Hispanic voters in Texas.”
While Bush is seen as the favorite in his race, Mike Baselice, a longtime pollster for Republicans in Texas, said that Bush would probably poll 5 to 10 points lower than his opponent if he had a Hispanic surname and one that was not as politically prominent. Baselice said his research showed that candidates with non-Hispanic surnames generally received more votes in Republican primaries.
That is especially the case, Baselice added, in races farther down the ballot, with candidates who are relatively unknown.
“If they’re not well known, it’s the propensity for voters in the Republican Party primary, by a few points, to select the other guy or the non-Hispanic name,” Baselice said. “Once you become known, it’s a whole different game than when you're starting out."
Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, dismissed the idea that Hispanic candidates were handicapped in the primaries by their surnames, citing Ted Cruz’s victory in the 2012 race for the U.S. Senate and recent legislative wins by other Hispanic Republicans.
In fact, Munisteri said, Hispanic candidates could “have a slight advantage, given the party’s awareness of the need to attract Hispanics.”
Baselice, who was Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s pollster in his unsuccessful race against Cruz, said that Cruz’s low name identification among primary voters during the campaign was a reason he finished second in the primary. Once the race went to a runoff, Baselice said, Cruz was able to win because he could raise more money and get his message out.
Munisteri, who has worked to increase the party's outreach to Hispanics, said a victory by Bush would fit within the party’s “Hispanic-inclusive framework.”
“I think it adds to the message that the state GOP has been saying for three years,” Munisteri said, referring to a welcome of more Hispanic voters and an invitation to them to assume leadership positions.
With a win, Bush would become the fourth Hispanic Republican in statewide elected office, joining Cruz, Judge Elsa Alcala of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and Justice Eva Guzman of the Texas Supreme Court. Alcala ran unopposed in the 2012 Republican primary in 2012; Guzman defeated another Hispanic Republican in 2010.
Still, Hispanic candidates have fared poorly at times in Republican races, particulary in statewide races that are farther down the ballot.
A former railroad commissioner, Victor Carrillo, lost a 2010 Republican primary against a lesser-known opponent, David Porter, despite outspending him and running as an incumbent. (Carrillo was appointed to the position in 2003 to fulfill an unfinished term and won an election the year after.)
In a letter to supporters after his defeat, Carrillo said his ethnicity and Hispanic surname were factors in his loss.
"Given the choice between ‘Porter’ and ‘Carrillo’ — unfortunately, the Hispanic surname was a serious setback from which I could never recover, although I did all in my power to overcome this built-in bias,” he wrote.
With few Hispanic Republicans running for statewide office, James Henson, a Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said there were too few cases to label those losses as "systematic." But he added that context was crucial.
Some conservative primary voters, Henson said, could justify voting for an unknown candidate with a non-Hispanic surname over a Hispanic candidate by pointing to discussions of loaded partisan issues — like border security or immigration — surrounding an election and connecting negative perceptions on these issues to candidates based on ethnicity.
“There’s enough of a cultural norm that people should feel that they should not make discriminatory judgments based on ethnicity,” Henson said, adding that voters could look for a rationale to justify voting against candidates with Hispanic surnames.
“There’s probably a lot more to how people react to Hispanic candidates than just the surname,” he said.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said Hispanic Republicans in Texas were not “necessarily doomed” in an election, but he agreed that the success of Hispanic Republicans in Texas was dependent on the mood of the electorate and specific election circumstances of each election.
Vargas said the rise of prominent Hispanic Republicans like Cruz and Bush was encouraging for other Hispanics looking to run for office.
“It shows that Latinos can be viable in either party and that no party has a lock on Latinos as either voters or candidates," Vargas said. “It’s one of the strengths of the Latino community. It participates in both political parties and should not be ignored by either.”