January 10, 2011 | Southern Political Report | Original Article

Latino Republicans gain in Dixie


Most Latino, or Hispanic, voters and elected officials across the nation are Democrats. Most, but not all. Last November, Latino and Anglo voters put a record number of Hispanic Republicans in office, a pattern that strongly prevailed in the South.

Prior to the election last fall, there were nine Southern Latino lawmakers in Congress, three from Florida and six from Texas. The numbers* remain about the same, but there was a partisan shift. Before the election, the ratio was 6D/3R; after the election, it became 4D/6R, including US Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who became the region’s – and the nation’s – only Latino US Senator. The major change was in Texas, where the Democrats lost two Latino US Representatives and the GOP gained two.

This newly established Republican beachhead among Latinos in Congress raises the question, how will the GOP majority in the 112th Congress handle legislation on illegal immigration?

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), tells SPR, “We are hoping that with an increase of GOP Hispanic members in the House, there will be more access of the community to the new leadership.” He noted further that Latino lawmakers are not of one mind on this complex issue. “Many of these members believe the system is broken and needs to be addressed.”

Nevertheless, few Latinos, elected or otherwise, are impressed by proposals that could theoretically deport millions of US residents to their countries of origin or would impose discriminatory practices by employers or police against Latinos regardless of citizenship status. How effective the Hispanic Republicans in Congress will be in helping draft legislation that melds often-conflicting views on this issue remains to be seen.

In the Southern legislatures, the number of Hispanic members remained about the same: 50 before the election, 49 afterwards. The most notable partisan shift was in the Texas House of Representatives, where the GOP went from no Latino representatives to five. The old partisan ratio in the lower chamber was 32 Democrats to 0 Republicans; the new ratio is 26 Democrats to 5 Republicans. While the Democrats are still the dominant force among Texas Latinos, Republicans, with five legislators and two congressmen, now have a significant foothold.

The Latino gains among Republicans were not limited to the South. In New Mexico, voters elected Latino GOPer Susana Martinez as their governor.

Traditionally, Democrats have had an advantage with Latino voters in Texas and elsewhere, except in Florida. In recent decades, the Democratic Party has been more committed to policies that benefit minorities, including Latinos. Moreover, since many Latinos are in a lower income bracket, they have been more likely to favor the Democrats’ fiscal liberalism.

The GOP, however, has never been near-marginalized among Latinos, as it has been among African Americans. One reason is that many Latinos are in middle income brackets and fiscal conservatism often appeals to them. Another is that regardless of income status, many Latinos – either Catholics or fundamentalist Protestants – are socially conservative. Thus, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both ran well among Latino voters.

Although Hispanic citizens and immigrants are increasingly spread throughout the South, two major concentrations are in Florida and Texas. In Florida, most of Latinos are Cuban Americans, either refugees from the Castro revolution or their descendants. In Texas, most Latinos are Mexican Americans, many of whom have lived in the state for generations.

*The statistics on Latino lawmakers are from www.naleo.org.