"There are three Hispanic Republicans in the Texas Legislature. Only one is coming back." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
And then there was one.
After Tuesday's primary elections, the only Hispanic Republican incumbent who will return to the Texas Legislature in January is state Rep. J.M. Lozano of Kingsville. That's after three Hispanic GOP lawmakers served during the 2017 legislative session.
On Tuesday, Dallas Republican state Rep. Jason Villalba lost his re-election bid to Lisa Luby Ryan, a primary opponent who flanked him on the right. His departure from the Legislature follows Round Rock Republican state Rep. Larry Gonzales’ previous decision to not seek re-election.
Though it’s possible Republicans could make up for one of those losses in November, the prospect that Lozano might be the only Hispanic Republican in the GOP-dominated Legislature offers a grim outlook for those who want the party to increase its standing among Hispanics in a state that is becoming less and less white.
“It’s not frustration. It’s serious concern,” said Artemio "Temo" Muniz, Texas chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans.
Hispanic Republicans have long been underrepresented in the Legislature, but the GOP had made some diversity gains in the last decade. During the 2009 legislative session, there were no Hispanic Republican legislators. Just ahead of the 2016 election cycle, that count had climbed to six.
But the 2016 elections ultimately dealt setbacks to the GOP’s modest legislative diversity when half of the Hispanic Republicans in the Legislature — three out of six — lost their re-election bids. They lost their seats even though Republican Gov. Greg Abbott had worked on their behalf.
Texas Republicans’ dearth of diversity among their legislative ranks stands in stark contrast to the Democrats. During the last legislative cycle, 41 of the 66 Democrats in the Legislature were Hispanic, while 17 were black. Only six were white and two were Asian.
Meanwhile, there were only five people of color — the three Hispanics, one Asian representative and one black representative — among the 115 Republicans elected to the state House and Senate.
Party leaders, including Abbott, have long rejected the notion that the Texas GOP struggles with diversity.
“We continue our efforts to reach out to the diverse communities here in the state of Texas,” Abbott said after the 2016 election, “and that's something that I championed during my campaign last time and will again this next time.”
When the count of Hispanic Republicans in the Texas Legislature was cut in half in one fell swoop in 2016, Abbott pointed to the re-elections of Lozano, Villalba and Gonzales as evidence that “the diversity continues in the Republican Party.”
Asked about the prospect that only one Hispanic Republican would return to the Legislature, an Abbott spokesman on Wednesday pointed to the governor's support of Hispanic GOP hopefuls, noting that Abbott was planning to work with local Hispanic officials who have switched parties this cycle and are seeking office across the state.
Of note, Lozano, the only Hispanic Republican who is returning to the Legislature, is a former Democrat who switched parties in 2012 after his district near the Coastal Bend was redrawn to be less favorable to Democrats.
This year, Republicans looking to boost their diversity will set their hopes on two legislative races that are far from certain wins.
In Williamson County-based House District 52, social services case manager Cynthia Flores handily won the Republican nomination on Tuesday, setting her up to face Democrat James Talarico in the general election. She’s picked up endorsements from Gonzales, the outgoing Hispanic Republican who currently represents the district, and Abbott.
Flores on Wednesday recognized her election could help boost diversity among the GOP’s ranks and described the prospect of serving as the only Hispanic Republican woman in the Legislature as a honor.
“It’s all about making sure that we have the right people at the right time who are willing to serve and are true to themselves,” Flores said. But she acknowledged it was too soon to claim that distinction.
The district, which President Donald Trump won by 1.4 points, is a big target for Democrats in November. The area was represented by a Democrat before Gonzales won it in the 2010 Republican wave.
Some Republicans are also eyeing San Antonio-based House District 117, which switched party hands briefly in 2014 as part of a Republican wave but switched back to Democratic control in 2016. Though the Democratic margin of victory wasn’t wide in 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won it by almost 11 points.
Though the outcomes of those races are uncertain, it's clear that the Republican Party needs to work harder to elect Hispanics who aren’t left to ride Republican waves into office, Muniz added.
In managing the 2014 campaign of former state Rep. Gilbert Peña — who flipped a Pasadena-based district that was held by a Democrat by 152 votes — Muniz said their strategy depended on their ability to ride the “Greg Abbott wave.”
Peña, who didn’t have much legislative experience, lost his seat in 2016 when the Democrat who formerly held it won it back with a 20-point margin of victory.
This year, the Texas GOP is dealing with the ramifications of the party's shift away form Bush-era politics to Trump's, said Victoria De Francesco Soto, a political science lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin.
“There was growth of Hispanic Republicans prompted by Bush's pragmatic politics. It was a pillar of his politics,” De Francesco Soto said, referencing former President George W. Bush, who also served as governor of Texas. “Those ideas have been purged from the Republican Party and Hispanics are not getting the same deference or respect they had when the Bush politics was the major force in Texas.”
In a state where Hispanic voters tend to vote Democratic, those politics — and the related lack of Hispanic representation among Republican elected officials — could complicate the party’s efforts to turn out even conservative Hispanics, she added.
“There is dwindling space for Latino Republicans at the table in elected office,” De Francesco Soto said. “And that is going to trickle down to the electorate as well.”
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