How do you succeed in wooing Hispanics without really trying? Rick Perry may have the answer. In 2010, running for his third full term, the Republican governor won the support of more than 400,000 Hispanic voters in Texas, his best performance to date. Perry didn’t need to win that many—Texas is still deep red, and he had won his last two elections pretty easily. But even had he needed the votes, it isn’t Perry’s style to make an explicitly ethnic pitch to a minority group. In fact, Rob Johnson, Perry’s campaign manager, says the team didn’t develop a separate Hispanic outreach strategy at all.
“Did we have Spanish-language ads? Sure,” Johnson says. “But they mirrored the same message as the English ones.”
That message was part economic, part populist: The Perry regime of lower taxes and smaller, less intrusive government had kept the economy booming through the Great Recession and kept more money in the average Texan’s pocket. That convinced the majority of Texas voters, who reelected Perry over his Democratic challenger by double digits. More remarkable, though, was how the Anglo Republican also managed to convince about 40 percent of Hispanic voters, who are traditionally and overwhelmingly Democratic. That was a major improvement for Perry, who in 2006 received closer to 31 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Texas’s economy is still going strong after more than a dozen years with Perry at the helm. His announcement last week that he won’t seek a fourth term may mean we won’t get to see if he can persuade even more Hispanics. But whether or not he decides to run for president again, the soon-to-be-former governor is one of several Republicans offering the rest of the party a model for winning more Hispanic voters.
“You’ve got to go to the events,” says Blake Farenthold, the sophomore Republican congressman from Corpus Christi. “You’ve got to do the same sort of outreach to Hispanics that you do to any other group. They want to see their congressman.”
Farenthold was first elected to the House in 2010, defeating a 14-term Democratic incumbent in a district that was 70 percent Hispanic and bordered Mexico. The race was close—within about 800 votes—but Farenthold appealed to white and Hispanic Democrats alike by arguing that their party had moved too far to the left on issues like abortion and health care. After redistricting, he’s in a much safer Republican district, but 49 percent of his constituents are Hispanic. Farenthold, echoing a common Republican talking point, says Hispanics in his district are naturally conservative, particularly on social and cultural issues. The GOP could do better, he says, if they made that argument to Hispanics directly.
“You just show up and be part of their community,” he tells me, but immediately shakes the idea away. “It’s not even ‘their’ community, it’s the community.”
As far as goals go, Perry’s 40 percent seems attainable for Republicans running in Hispanic-heavy states or nationwide. President George W. Bush, who preceded Perry in Austin, won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his successful 2004 reelection campaign. The nation’s first Latina governor, New Mexico Republican Susana Martinez, also won 40 percent of Hispanics when she was elected in 2010.
Despite her own profile, advisers say Martinez had the toughest time courting her fellow Hispanic women, particularly in the Democratic strongholds around Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Since her election, Martinez has made reforming the state’s dismal education system a top priority. One adviser says her education agenda is resonating with these women. Today, Martinez has a 68 percent approval rating among Hispanic voters overall. She’s unlikely to do that well when she runs for reelection next year, but she’s nonetheless raised her potential ceiling.
“The way you bring in Hispanics or any other group is being honest with them, letting them know that they believe in the same thing you do, despite the fact that they are registered in a different party,” Martinez told me in an interview last year. “Find the common thread.”
Another New Mexican, congressman Steve Pearce, also has a good track record with Hispanic voters. Pearce is the only House Republican with a district that currently borders Mexico, and 47 percent of his constituents are Hispanic. A staunch conservative, he’s represented the rural southern half of New Mexico since 2003, minus a two-year interlude when he made an ill-fated run for Senate and a Democrat took his place in the House. Pearce won the seat back in 2010, and he says that in 2012 he had his best-ever showing with Hispanic voters—up to 42 percent, his consultants tell him. His secret isn’t much of one.