Jewish World Review June 6, 2002 / 25 Sivan, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The GOP's much ballyhooed efforts to woo Hispanic voters face a tough test this November in Texas, where Republic Gov. Rick Perry faces Democrat businessman Tony Sanchez. The last time a Hispanic ran for governor in Texas -- on the radical La Raza Unida ticket -- was 1972, which makes this a particularly uphill battle for the Republicans who must convince Hispanic voters to put ethnic pride aside.
Recent polls suggest that Perry is winning handily among non-Hispanic whites but trails Sanchez among Hispanic voters by 37 percent to Sanchez's 58 percent. So is it time for the GOP to give up on its Hispanic strategy? Certainly not -- but it could use some fine tuning, and the Perry-Sanchez race will provide important lessons on the best way to attract Hispanics to the Republican Party in other states as well.
Texas has the second largest Hispanic population -- 32 percent -- of any state. Hispanics have traditionally voted Democrat, but some Republicans have been able to attract large numbers of Hispanic voters over the years. George W. Bush got about half the Hispanic vote when he ran for re-election as Texas governor in 1998, and both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon did very well among Hispanics in their presidential re-election bids, as did New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
Although Perry's Hispanic numbers don't match Bush's in 1998, they are still surprisingly strong. After all, Perry faces not only the first Hispanic to win the gubernatorial nomination of a major party in the state, but one who spent almost $20 million in the Democratic primary, which bought his opponent, Sanchez, nearly universal name recognition.
Yet Democrat Sanchez isn't doing as well as you might expect. In fact, he's doing better among black voters in the state than he is among Hispanics. Some 67 percent of black voters indicated on a recent poll that they favor Sanchez, almost 10 percent higher than Sanchez's share of the Hispanic vote.
All of which suggests that maybe some Hispanic voters don't so much vote for Republican candidates as they do against certain kinds of Democrats, even if they happen to be Hispanic.
In almost every case where Republicans have done well with Hispanic voters, the Democratic candidate was left-leaning. Although Sanchez is frequently described as a conservative businessman -- he donated heavily to President Bush's campaigns for governor and president -- he ran as the more liberal candidate against another Hispanic in the Democratic primary, former state attorney general Dan Morales. What's more, Sanchez especially tried to outflank Morales on the language issue.
Sanchez insisted that Morales debate him entirely in Spanish in one televised debate, and when Morales refused -- answering questions in both English and Spanish -- Sanchez accused Morales of being insufficiently proud of his heritage. "He is very ashamed and very embarrassed to be Hispanic," Sanchez said of Morales.
Sanchez' ploy may actually have turned off some Hispanic voters in Texas. It certainly turned me off, though I don't live in the state. I'm proud of my Hispanic heritage -- which stretches back some 400 years in New Mexico -- but I don't want candidates appealing for my vote based on my ethnicity.
Worse, I hate it when candidates of either party behave as if most Hispanic voters can't understand English. It's downright insulting. English is the primary language for the majority of U.S. citizens of Hispanic heritage. While many Hispanic immigrants can't speak English, those who aren't yet citizens can't vote either. So why do candidates -- of both political parties -- insist on airing ads in Spanish?
The Republicans should learn from Tony Sanchez's mistakes. Those Hispanics who are eligible to vote tend to be better educated, have higher earnings than the overall Hispanic population, and are overwhelmingly English-speaking. They're proud of their Hispanic culture, but they are even more proud to be Americans. And they don't like being pandered to, even by one of their own.
The Republican Party will win more Hispanic votes by keeping these facts in mind than they ever will by trying to beat the Democrats at the game of ethnic identity politics.
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