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For Abbott, Trump Creates a Challenge With Hispanics

Hispanic Republican leaders in Texas were pretty happy with how Gov. Greg Abbott performed in his maiden year, but they're less pleased with his silence since Donald Trump starting bashing Mexican immigrants.

Gov-elect Greg Abbott at an executive aviation terminal on election eve.

Hispanic Republican leaders in Texas have been largely satisfied with Gov. Greg Abbott's maiden year in office. 

Early in his tenure, he tapped Carlos Cascos, a Hispanic Republican from the border, to serve as secretary of state. During his first legislative session, he signed off on an $800 million infusion into the state's border security efforts. And he’s made efforts to meet with Mexican officials, and accepted an invitation to visit the state’s partner in trade.

Then came Donald Trump.

After jumping into the 2016 presidential race in June, the billionaire businessman made headlines for saying Mexico is “not sending their best” to the United States, leaving the country to deal with rapists, drug dealers and other criminals.

Many in the ever-expanding GOP field of presidential contenders admonished Trump for his remarks, and business partners quickly distanced themselves from his rhetoric.

But from Abbott — who has often boasted of his campaign’s focus on increasing Hispanic support for the GOP — there has been little but silence, and many of his Hispanic supporters have taken note.

Abbott's only comment on Trump’s remarks came when prompted by an interviewer on the TV show Fox & Friends. “I disagree with some of the tenor of Donald Trump, but the fact is, he has pointed out a great frustration that Americans have, and that is Washington, D.C., has not done its job to secure the border," Abbott responded.

But as Trump touched down on the Texas-Mexico border on Thursday, Hispanic Republicans called on the governor to take a more assertive approach to chastising Trump for his comments.

Artemio Muniz, state chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans, said Abbott’s low-key rebuke of Trump’s “tenor” did little for the party’s ability to make inroads with the growing Hispanic electorate.

“In order for me to go out there and win hearts and minds, I need the people at the top to do their job in remembering and protecting this relationship,” Muniz said. “We definitely need more, especially from Texas leaders. Trump’s comments have really damaged that relationship.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Texas GOP has attempted to broaden its appeal to the Hispanic community — which, at 10 million people, makes up 38 percent of the state’s population and is expected to reach a majority in three decades or so.

But Hispanic Republicans noted that Abbott’s response differed markedly from that of former Gov. Rick Perry, who has emerged as Trump’s leading critic.

Soon after Trump’s announcement, Perry lambasted the billionaire's remarks while praising Hispanic immigrants’ “extraordinary" service to the country. More recently, Perry told a D.C. crowd that Trump “is wrongly demonizing Mexican-Americans for political sport.” And on the morning of Trump’s border trip, Perry said he hoped Trump “will explain to the Hispanic Americans he meets why he thinks they are rapists and murderers.”

Trump has shot back, saying Perry should be ashamed for doing “an absolutely horrible job of securing the border” all the while describing Abbott as “terrific.”

Mission Mayor Beto Salinas, who endorsed the governor during his campaign, suggested that Abbott, as Perry's successor, should take seriously Trump's criticism of the former governor.

"He should be a little more vocal because he knows that Gov. Perry had his hands on the border all the time, and all he did was just change hands," Salinas said, adding that Abbott should also part ways with the $35,000 he received in campaign cash from Trump.

"He should give it back to him," Salinas said, recalling the Rio Grande Valley's support for Abbott's campaign. "He came down, we supported him. We gave him more than $35,000."

Election results show that Abbott doesn't have a strong hold on the Hispanic vote.

Abbott lost the border counties he repeatedly visited during his campaign, taking 42 percent of the vote in Cameron County and 35 percent in Hidalgo County. Though his supporters often point to exit polls that showed Abbott won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote as part of his 20-point margin of victory, political observers have reiterated that his success among Hispanics was in a low-turnout election.

Abbott won’t face the Hispanic electorate until he’s up for re-election in 2018.

Other Hispanic Republicans refuted the thought that Abbott’s faint reaction to Trump would sour the governor’s appeal to Hispanic voters.

Though he commended Perry for his criticism of Trump, Hector De Leon, co-chairman of the Associated Republicans of Texas, said Abbott’s response was in line with his more measured approach to politics.

“Greg Abbott is a jurist and he has the temperament of a jurist,” De Leon said. “I don’t think it’s any sort of a contradiction between his campaign rhetoric and outreach and where he is today. There’s no question that he doesn’t agree with Donald Trump.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s controversial comments have left some in the border business community — which is used to fending off fiery rhetoric about the area — wishing elected officials in Texas did more to debunk false statements made about the border and its residents.

State leaders, including the governor, should make better use of their bully pulpit to fight “reinforced misperceptions” about the border that result from comments like those made by Trump, said Steve Ahlenius, president and CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a role for all elected officials,” Ahlenius said.

Others offered that Abbott’s approach is reflective of the GOP’s two big challenges: balancing the interests of the Republican base and Hispanics, and reconciling the party’s internal fractures.

“Keeping quiet signifies [Abbott] knows the political temperature of Texas and that temperature is in tune with a lot of the comments [Trump is] saying,” said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a public affairs and political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Trump’s words have resonated with some Republican voters, helping him shoot to the top of the polls. And responses to Trump’s remarks have further highlighted the split between Perry and Tea Party darling U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who has lauded Trump since announcing his candidacy.

When it comes to Trump, DeFrancesco Soto said the contrasts between Perry and Cruz are emblematic of the ongoing divide within the Republican Party that is likely hindering Abbott from speaking up on the matter.

“Right now we’re seeing a civil war between the chamber of commerce types and the Tea Party types,” DeFrancesco Soto said. “And Greg Abbott is in the middle of it.”

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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