In Texas, Some Republicans Say The Party Needs To Embrace Latino Voters
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
By most measures, the Republican Party remains dominant in Texas. Republican candidates won every statewide office in this past election, just as they have for the past two decades, with one key difference. This time, the margins were very close, so close that some in the Texas GOP are anxious. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin reports.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Election night was a good night for Texas Republicans. And that includes Senator Ted Cruz, who had some tough competition this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TED CRUZ: God bless Texas.
LOPEZ: Cruz's Democratic challenger, Beto O'Rourke, lost by only 2.6 percentage points. That's unheard of in recent Texas history. O'Rourke ran an ambitious campaign that brought a lot of new voters into the mix, including young voters and racial minorities. And this new electorate in Texas is why Republican operatives here sound like this.
ARTEMIO MUNIZ: You have to do a complete 180, or Texas will go blue.
LOPEZ: That's Artemio Muniz. He's the chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans in Texas. He says what worried him the most about this recent Texas Senate race was how many Latinos voted for O'Rourke. Democrats have long hoped the state's booming Latino population would help them win statewide elections, but that hasn't happened. Muniz says Democrats are getting closer because of how Republicans have been talking about Latinos.
MUNIZ: The Democratic Party is having success not just because they are organizing and because they have money but because we have antagonized and disrespected the Hispanic community.
LOPEZ: Muniz says Trump's family separation policy at the border, among other things, has made it easier for Democrats to appeal to Latinos in Texas. Historically, Texas Republicans have done fairly well with Latinos. Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist, says the state party is facing an uphill battle in the Trump era.
BRENDAN STEINHAUSER: My sense is that when you make people feel unwanted and unwelcome through your rhetoric and through your tone, they see that. They reject it. And then they punish you at the ballot box.
LOPEZ: Steinhauser isn't just worried about Latinos. He's also worried that since this last election, Democrats are now winning in every single major city in Texas. And losses in the growing suburbs and exurbs around those cities cost Republicans two seats in Congress.
STEINHAUSER: And if Republicans can't win or at least compete in those counties and keep it as even as possible, we're going to be in big trouble.
LOPEZ: And while many Republican operatives are wringing their hands, some members of the party say this is actually a good thing.
GEORGE SEAY: I think that when a state is more competitive that it's good for the people of Texas.
LOPEZ: That's George Seay. In 2012, he was Rick Perry's finance chair during his presidential run. Seay now runs a statewide Republican group. He says he's looking forward to closer elections in Texas because he thinks it will make Republicans better at running elections and the state.
SEAY: Republicans need to come in every cycle and make a strong case for why they should be governing and making decisions that affect all of us.
LOPEZ: And Seay says that even if races get closer, he thinks voters here will continue to choose Republicans in larger numbers. And Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist, says tough fights are coming sooner rather than later. Because Texas is a little more purple now, Steinhauser expects left-leaning groups will start spending more money here. And he says some Republicans are preparing for the 2020 presidential election, when even more Democrats are likely to vote.
STEINHAUSER: This is where the future of Texas politics lies in that we have a lot of work to do because we expect Beto O'Rourke to stay around. We expect other candidates to emerge and say, if he can run statewide and do well, then I'm going to run.
LOPEZ: On election night, it wasn't just those congressional seats. The Republican Party of Texas also lost two state senators, 12 Texas House members, as well as a bunch of judgeships around the state. However, they still hold every statewide position, including the governorship. So Democrats are making some gains, but at least for now, Texas is still run by Republicans. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.