After 20-odd debates and a perpetual feast of red meat, the one-upsmanship on immigration and border security that has defined the Republican primary for lieutenant governor has settled into a daily routine. With gubernatorial candidate and current Attorney General Greg Abbott’s comparison of parts of South Texas to a third-world country last week, the tone of the lieutenant governor’s race seems to have found its way to the top of the ticket. Democrats have pounced as if this was a mistake by the Abbott campaign — but was it?
Public opinion data from the October 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll and the 2010 exit polls indicate that Republicans may in fact be pursuing a strategy whose short-term success is all but assured. Abbott’s comments suggest not only a familiar appeal to the conservative GOP primary electorate but, perhaps more importantly, decisions by GOP candidates to focus their appeals on Anglo voters who are voting in overwhelming numbers for the Republican Party — and thinking about issues related to immigration and border security while they do it.
Immigration and border security, when combined, consistently rate as the top problem facing the state, according to registered voters in our UT/TT polls. Overall, 26 percent of respondents said that immigration/border security was the top problem facing Texas in October 2013. In light of these data, the amount of time that the lieutenant governor candidates have spent on immigration, and Abbott’s detailed policy proposal to spend $300 million to secure the border, suggests that these candidates know what they’re doing and who they’re speaking to — and it’s not the current foundation of the emerging Hispanic majority. Compared to the quarter of Texans who think that immigration and border security are the top issue, a third of white Texans and almost half of white Republicans (46 percent) hold that opinion. By this measure, it’s not that the GOP’s candidates, especially at this point in the process, are talking about immigration too much — it’s that they really can’t talk about it enough.
In the 2010 gubernatorial election, according to the exit polls, Hispanics accounted for only 17 percent of the electorate. Anglos, on the other hand, made up 67 percent of an electorate that gave Abbott 64 percent of the vote, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst 62 percent, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson 62 percent and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples 61 percent. All those jaw-dropping presentations about long-term growth notwithstanding, this Election Day demographic breakdown is unlikely to change dramatically in the near future. Republican hopefuls appear perfectly willing to focus on the voters in the here and now — and take care of tomorrow’s challenges when they become manifest.
Beyond the particulars of immigration, border security and official corruption, it’s the tone in the Republican primary that has riled the likes of San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis — and, perhaps more importantly, Democratic partisans. Even among Republicans, there has been much public conflict over how to manage the long-term interests of the party in recognizing the need for the GOP to appeal to at least some Latino voters, from the national to-and-fro over immigration to the Abbott campaign’s much-publicized outreach efforts, including its Spanish-language website. There is no doubt gnashing of teeth among some Republicans who wish the candidates would simply cool it on rhetoric likely to antagonize Latino voters, however popular it is to the predominantly Anglo base. It’s a steep hill to gaining 40 percent of the Latino vote if this keeps up.
But here again, while the Republican candidates may sound too severe for some, the data indicate that they don’t for Anglos, and certainly not for Anglo Republicans. While 48 percent of Texans and 55 percent of Anglo Texans oppose comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship at the federal level, among Anglo Republicans, opposition increases to 73 percent. And while proposals to secure the border are broadly popular with Texans (81 percent) and Anglo Texans (85 percent), they’re overwhelmingly popular with Texas’ Anglo Republicans, 94 percent of whom express support, the vast majority of them strongly.
This is not to say that Republicans are giving up on Hispanic voters, just that they’re comfortable with where they are and willing to lose a few votes today to shore up their comfortable majority position while dealing with tomorrow’s demographics, well, tomorrow. And it’s not as though Hispanics don’t care about immigration and border security — 20 percent cited it as the most important problem facing the state in October 2013. Nor are all Hispanics Democrats. Recent data released by Gallup shows that 46 percent of Hispanics in Texas identify with the Democratic Party compared with 26 percent of Anglos (27 and 61 percent of Hispanic and Anglo Texans identify with the Republican Party, by comparison).
Democrats might argue that Republicans appear to be playing right into their hands in the Hispanics waiting game, but polling data indicates that in the short run, the GOP appears to be embarking on a winning strategy to mobilize a reliable and larger electorate using the rhetoric that motivates them — in essence, dancing with those who brung them.
The hardest question for Democrats is whether they can go too far in their response and, in effect, play into the Republicans’ hands yet again. The offense expressed by Democratic activists in social and traditional media in response to Abbott's provocation had to be, and was, channeled by the Davis campaign. Heartening as the response may be to Democratic cadres, Hispanic and otherwise, the effect may be not only to rally their own base, but also to let out another blast of a dog whistle heard very clearly by the far more reliably voting GOP base. Even as Abbott qualifies and shifts to other issues — like, say, ethics — the Democrats pounding on the GOP’s tone deafness prick up the ears of the very same people that the GOP is trying to mobilize.
Sanctuary cities served as the dog whistle of 2010 for white Republican voters. Abbott’s "third world" comment potentially does that tactic one better by offering the whistle over to Davis and her allies and inviting them to keep sounding the call. The dilemma is a profound and tactically difficult one for a party whose identity remains tightly bound with civil rights and racial equality, pitting moral imperatives and the identity of the Democratic Party against the harsh reality of political math in the Texas of 2014.