Ted Cruz, the Republican running for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas, has his work cut out for him even though no Democrat has won a statewide race since 1994.
His party is banking on Cruz to attract Latinos to their ticket in November as Mitt Romney takes on President Barack Obama. His success -- or failure -- may determine the political future of a state with an expanding Hispanic population.
“If we can get 40 to 50 percent of the Hispanic vote, we can stay the majority party for a very long time,” said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the state Republican Party. “If we get 20 or 30 percent, this state will become Democratic.”
Cruz, 41, is a Cuban-American, while 85 percent of Hispanic Texans have Mexican roots and most backed Democrats in past elections. The Houston lawyer and Ivy League alumnus, who has called his Spanish “lousy,” would be the first Latino senator from the second-largest U.S. state. Hispanics make up 38 percent of the Texas population, a 42 percent gain since 2000.
“To the extent that there was a misperception that the Republican Party was not open to the Hispanic community, having a candidate of his descent dispels that,” Munisteri said.
The Tea Party-backed candidate, a former state solicitor general, is also a rising star among Republicans nationwide. A week after he beat Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst 57 percent to 43 percent in a primary runoff, Cruz was named to speak at the party’s national convention later this month.
Cruz will be a “headliner” during the Aug. 27-30 event in Tampa, Florida, according to Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman. The candidate will join leaders such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose confrontations with Democrats and public-worker unions made headlines in 2011.
“Cruz is a rock star, probably the single most appealing Republican figure in this state right at this moment,” Munisteri said. Cruz is seeking to replace Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is retiring after three full terms.
Republicans have dominated Texas politics since the late 1990s and now control every statewide elected office and both legislative chambers. They set the agenda on everything from spending and taxes to health care and education. Drawing in Hispanics, who are forecast to be the majority ethnic group by 2030, “is a matter of survival,” Munisteri said.
Among Latino Texans, 75 percent backed Democrats in 2010 voting, according to Richard Murray, who teaches politics at the University of Houston. While 67 percent of U.S. Latino voters supported Obama in 2008, in Texas it was 63 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. In 2004, 49 percent backed President George W. Bush, a Republican from Texas.
By opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants and supporting the construction of a wall along the entire 1,900-mile (3,100-kilometer) U.S.-Mexico border, Cruz may repel Hispanics, who tend to hold “more liberal” views, said Jason Casellas, a government teacher at the University of Texas at Austin and at the school’s Center for Mexican American Studies.
“A lot of this anti-immigrant rhetoric is seen as anti-Latino,” Casellas said. “How many Mexican-Americans will see Cruz as one of us?”
In his primary campaign, which began in January 2011 when he has said he was at 2 percent in voter surveys -- less than the typical margin of error, Cruz didn’t put much focus on winning over Latinos.
“Very few Latinos voted in the Republican primary,” Casellas said. “Now that Cruz has to pivot to the general election, you can see him making some appeal to Latinos using the values argument” on social issues.
Cruz’s father is a Cuban immigrant, while his mother is an American of Irish-Italian descent. He was born in Canada, before the family moved to Houston when he was a child.
As a Southern Baptist, Cruz differs in his faith from almost 70 percent of U.S. Latinos, who are Roman Catholic, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
His opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage “would seem to be ready-made for Latino voters, who are predominantly Catholic, pro-life, very patriotic” said Jerry Polinard, a politics professor at the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg, in the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley.
“But that’s not what matters most to Latino voters,” Polinard said. “They care about education and health care, and today, immigration. Those issues are going to be persuasive.”
In the primary campaign, Cruz said he would abolish the U.S. Education Department and pledged to help repeal Obama’s signature health overhaul if he wins in November against Democrat Paul Sadler, a former state representative. Texas has the nation’s highest rate of uninsured residents, at 25 percent.
“I don’t think it’s the government’s job to provide health care for everyone,” Cruz said during a July 23 debate with Dewhurst in Houston. “I think it’s an individual’s job to provide health care for themselves and their families.”
The Republican Party is gaining popularity among Latino Texans, Munisteri said, citing primary wins by Hispanic Republican office seekers. He counts Cruz among a new generation of leaders in their 30s and 40s, a group that includes George P. Bush, the Mexican-American nephew of the former Texas governor and U.S. president.
“Ted feels that Hispanics want the same things that everyone else does -- good jobs, opportunities,” said James Bernsen, a Cruz spokesman in Austin.
“The opportunities that Ted has experienced are directly related to the core values of faith, family, hard work and responsibility that most Hispanics share,” Bernsen said. “The Hispanic community in America isn’t looking for handouts. It’s looking for a share of the American dream.”