Froma Harrop | Latino Giant to Change US Politics

San Antonio – It was over frozen lattes three blocks from the Alamo that Lydia Camarillo and I discussed the wave of Latino voters expected to change politics in Texas – and America. Camarillo is vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a group that signs up new Hispanic voters and spurs them to the polls.

Some Texans predict that the “Latino giant” won’t fully flex its political might until 2012. Some say 2014. Others see the tough immigration law in Arizona moving the impact to this year. All agree that when Latinos arrive at the polls in huge numbers, the results won’t please Republicans.

“I think they know that the day is coming,” Camarillo said. “That’s why they are coming up with obstructions, such as voter ID laws.”

And there’s not much Republicans can do about a surging Latino electorate in the short term. Even if they appeal to more Latino voters and Hispanic turnout stays weak, the raw numbers may overwhelm them.

As Rice University political analyst Bob Stein explains, over the past three decades, Latino support for Democrats in Texas has actually fallen from 75 percent to 60 percent. But as Democrats lost 15 percentage points, they almost doubled in the number of votes received because of the explosive growth in the Latino population.

“The Democrats can afford to lose a significant percentage of the vote and still gain on the base,” Stein said. “Elections are determined by how many votes you get.”

And the expansion of that base is extraordinary. Steve Murdock, former director of the U.S. Census and now a professor at Rice University, has the numbers.

In 1980, there were 3 million Hispanics in Texas. In 2008, the total nearly reached 9 million, and projections put it at almost 10 million this year.

“One national figure that sticks out is the change in the under-20 population,” Murdock told me. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of 20-and-under non-Hispanic whites fell by 2.6 million, while Latinos increased by 3.8 million.

“In many ways, the Texas of today is the U.S. of tomorrow,” he added.

Will events in Arizona raise Latino turnout this year? While many Hispanics oppose illegal immigration, this law is being perceived as singling out their kind, and Texas Republicans know it.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who is running for re-election, quickly distanced himself from the Arizona law. Democrats are sitting back and hoping this will help their candidate, former Houston Mayor Bill White.

Texas will probably gain three or four U.S. House seats in the new census. The state legislature, working with the governor, will help draw the new district lines. Suppose White wins and Republicans lose their majority in the Texas House, which now stands at only three seats. Another messy redistricting process is guaranteed, but this time to the Democrats’ advantage.

But aren’t Latinos conservative on such Republican-dominated issues as abortion, same-sex marriage and school choice? I asked Lydia Camarillo about this.

“My father didn’t want me to wear pants because I’m a woman,” she answered with a nod, “but he did want me to be a teacher.”

Latinos do want universal health coverage and pre-kindergarten classes for their children, she noted. “The community is conservative in how it thinks, but it doesn’t vote conservative.”

And this Arizona law is unleashing Latino anxieties, as similar proposals pop up in other states. If the courts don’t overturn it, Camarillo said, “you’re going to see people understanding that the only way they can protect themselves is by registering and voting.”

Clearly, it’s not sage politics to pit a shrinking Republican base against the growing Latino giant. That may or may not work this time, but the population trend lines do not bode well for the Republican future.

Copyright 2010 The Providence Journal Co.

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