As Central Texas leaders of the League of United Latin American Citizens make plans for a January education summit, they have an unlikely partner: Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.
LULAC, the Hispanic civil rights group, has long clashed with Cornyn on issues, from health care to immigration. But they say they have found common ground on education.
“It’s very unusual,” LULAC Central Texas District Director Gavino Fernandez Jr. said of the partnership. Typically, Republicans “don’t reach out," he said. "They stay away from our community.”
That’s changing as Republicans eyeing the state’s shifting demographics increasingly invest in reaching Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans.
The Cornyn campaign is among the Republican groups in Texas actively seeking to reach diverse communities that haven’t been traditional Republican supporters. Cornyn's team says its approach is different because it’s using Tea Party-style strategies to connect with Texans at community and neighborhood gatherings. The idea is to build relationships that will eventually lead to votes. But for now, it's about earning respect and credibility, the campaign says.
“Some of the other people talking about this are not getting into the grassroots level,” Cornyn campaign manager Brendan Steinhauser said. “It’s mostly Anglos talking to Anglos about Hispanic outreach. We’re trying to turn that on its head.”
For Cornyn staffers, this has meant joining thousands of Indian Americans for the 2014 Holi Festival in Rosenberg and visiting colonias in the Rio Grande Valley. They say it's about listening to what communities care about, finding common ground and earning trust by helping to solve problems — securing a city permit for a parade, for example.
Democratic consultant James Aldrete questioned why Cornyn — a former district judge, member of the Texas Supreme Court and state attorney general — is only just now getting around to these efforts.
"It's pretty clear to me that it's window dressing," said Aldrete, who has worked for Cornyn's opponent, Democrat David Alameel.
On Saturday, Steinhauser joined representatives from the Travis County Republican Party at a party for Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery. At the event at an East Austin park on a steamy afternoon, a primarily African-American crowd celebrated with live music, snow cones and pony rides for children. Steinhauser and county party chairman James Dickey invited festival-goers to participate in a video about what Juneteenth means to them, and they walked around the park to survey people about what issues most concern them (gas prices, property taxes and schools were among the answers).
At such events, Cornyn staffers collect names and contact information that they say they will share with the state and national GOP. They plan to run targeted Facebook ads in voters’ native languages, too.
They’re already doing that in Spanish. The Cornyn campaign has a Spanish-language website and is about to roll one out in Vietnamese, the state’s third-most commonly spoken language.
For Cornyn, who easily fended off Tea Party challenger Steve Stockman in the Republican primary, these outreach efforts are about more than the general election in November. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll this month, Cornyn had the support of 36 percent of registered voters surveyed, 11 percentage points more than Alameel (though 26 percent were undecided).
Cornyn, the minority whip in the Senate, wants to lay the groundwork for his future campaigns, and for local, state and national GOP operations.
“As Republicans, we need to make our case to folks who share our values but may not necessarily look like me,” the senator said at the GOP state convention earlier this month. He added: “We’re hitting the streets, we’re knocking on doors and we’re engaging with all Texans. And you know what? People are listening.”
In 2008, the last time Cornyn was on the ballot, he got the support of 36 percent of Latino voters and 8 percent of African-American voters, exit polling showed.
Four years later, Republicans stunned by Mitt Romney’s loss — and Hispanics’ strong rejection of the former Massachusetts governor — got serious about reaching beyond their traditional base. The Republican National Committee has been hiring Hispanic outreach staffers and sending the Republican Party of Texas money to do outreach in black, Hispanic and Asian communities. Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott has a Spanish-language website and Twitter feed, and his first TV ad for the general election was in Spanish.
Last year, Cornyn hired Steinhauser, a veteran Tea Party organizer who, as director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, helped U.S. Senate campaigns including those of Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. Steinhauser, who is white, remembers that at his first meeting with Cornyn, the senator handed him an article about how the Canadian Conservative Party has appealed to minority groups by forging personal relationships — “showing up and breaking bread” — with communities that had sometimes seen the party as racist and hostile toward immigrants. The 2010 article detailed a Conservative Party government official’s exhausting schedule — one day in the Montreal area involved a speech at a Chabad Jewish community center, a town hall meeting in Chinatown, a meeting with people from the Egyptian, Pakistani and Iraqi communities, and a political event with the Afghan community.
That, Cornyn told Steinhauser, is what he wanted to do in Texas.
"It takes a lot of work outside the spotlight to start to build relationships, to find points of agreement, to find ways to work together," Dickey, the Travis County GOP chairman, said of Cornyn's efforts. "To see a candidate who easily could phone it in, more or less, for the November election ... not only not doing that but thinking about how they can do it in such a way that they really could make a long-term difference is really encouraging."
The Alameel campaign is not impressed.
“Cornyn’s claims about ‘reaching out’ with ‘Tea Party-style organizing’ to groups the GOP has long scorned can be answered with two well-known expressions: Talk’s cheap … and … Wonders never cease!’” Alameel spokesman Sergio Cantu wrote in an email. “After 12 years of voting against Latinos, women and working families in the U.S. Senate, John Cornyn wants to ‘reach out!’”
Complicating Republicans’ efforts to reach diverse communities is the hardline immigration plank that Texas Republicans adopted as part of the platform they approved earlier this month. The platform no longer endorses a provisional visa program for immigrants and calls for ending in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and for prohibiting “sanctuary cities” that do not enforce immigration laws. Democrats and some Republicans have slammed the new plank. Cornyn has not publicly endorsed or rejected the plank, and when asked for the senator's thoughts on it, Steinhauser said Cornyn hasn't taken a position.
“Some of the rhetoric around immigration has alienated voters, but I don't think it's something that we can't overcome,” Steinhauser said.
Another sore point between some non-white voters and the Texas GOP is redistricting. In 20ll, LULAC sued over Texas Republicans’ redistricting plan, saying it discriminated against Hispanics. But LULAC’s Fernandez said some conservative Mexican-Americans find common ground with Republicans on issues such as opposing abortion.
For the past two months, the Cornyn campaign has been working with LULAC, and they’re not the only Republicans to do so. After years of what Fernandez described as mostly silence from GOP groups, LULAC recently joined with the Travis County Republican Party to successfully push for single-member Austin City Council districts.
“We showed up the first time and it was kind of like, ‘What are y’all doing here?’” Steinhauser said of engaging with LULAC. “We kept showing up, and now we’re buds.”