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.
“I just show up. It’s that simple,” Pearce says. “We go into the parts of the community that typically Republicans don’t go. We engage. And we’re not just there for the photo-ops.”
Pearce hasn’t renounced his firmly conservative views on the national debt and federal spending, but he doesn’t dismiss the concerns of his Hispanic constituents, many of whom live in impoverished, crime-ridden border towns and tend to favor government programs. The typical resident there wants cleaner streets and safe neighborhoods, like any other American, but Pearce tries to encourage these communities to take responsibility where the federal government can’t or won’t help. “Clean up your own town,” he’ll tell them.
“People trust that kind of talk,” Pearce says. “There’s a lot about my directness. Personal accountability and responsibility is huge in the Hispanic community. I live that.”
The challenge, he says, is getting Hispanics to see that Republicans, not just Democrats, share their values, too. “I grew up dirt poor, so I know what most of them are experiencing,” Pearce says. “I’m a Republican but not the enemy. They’ve gotten to know me and they trust me.”
“You start with the issues, but politics is also very personal,” Farenthold agrees. “It’s much easier to vote for somebody you’ve met and somebody you like. You’re more likely to vote for somebody you like even if you don’t agree with them on the issues.”
Even if that issue is immigration? Conventional wisdom holds that Republicans can’t win Hispanic voters until they sign on to some kind, any kind, of immigration reform, especially one that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Polling shows Hispanic voters are particularly tuned in to immigration politics, but there are some surprises. A 2012 poll, for instance, found that 46 percent of Hispanics in Texas favor a plan that would give illegal immigrants work permits but bar them from a path to citizenship.
Many Hispanics arrived in this country legally, Pearce notes. “They have a sense of fair play and following the rules that doesn’t really appreciate people who’ve broken the law. They want them to be treated right, but they also don’t want them to get in line ahead of their family members who waited like they did, 18 years or whatever it takes.”
Nevertheless, Republican candidates who are too insensitive to the nuances of the immigration debate will continue to push away Hispanics. Mitt Romney’s rightward move on immigration in the 2012 GOP primary began as a way to outflank the field’s relative liberal on the issue—none other than Texas governor Rick Perry. It ended with Romney’s much-mocked suggestion that illegal immigrants “self-deport.”
“The issue is, can we deal with the problems we have in this country—it’s not just immigration—can we deal with them compassionately, without being haters, and stay consistent to our conservative principles?” asks Farenthold. “And I think we can do it with immigration. I think a pathway to legalization is a good compromise. It would get a lot of Republicans on board.”
Hispanics are also far from single-issue voters. A June Latino Decisions poll found that while 55 percent of Hispanics surveyed said immigration reform was the most or second-most important issue facing the Hispanic community, 35 percent responded with job creation and fixing the economy, 15 percent with education reform, and 14 percent with health care.
In all likelihood, it wouldn’t hurt the GOP to adopt a kinder, gentler approach to immigration. At the same time, the party could develop conservative policies that more directly address domestic, pocketbook issues like health care, education, and taxes, an effort that would reinvigorate white middle-class support for Republicans. Along the way, they may pick up Hispanic middle-class voters, too. But they should probably start by showing up.
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard and a 2012 Robert Novak journalism fellow.