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Texas set to send first Latinas to US Congress

Clare Richardson
August 14, 2018

Democrats hope to mobilize Texas's growing Latino population to vote in November's midterm elections. The state is poised to send two Hispanic women to the national legislature for the first time ever.

Voters wait in line to cast ballots in Texas
Image: Getty Images

Texas may bleed red, but US President Donald Trump garners little sympathy in the predominantly Hispanic district of Houston where Sylvia Garcia serves as a state senator.

"He and the Republican Party just have a problem with Latinos," Garcia told DW. "If you listened to them and didn't watch anything else you would think that everyone from Mexico was a bunch of murderous rapists."

Garcia is running for a seat in the US House of Representatives to push back against the administration's anti-immigrant policies. She and Veronica Escobar, a former county judge from El Paso, are widely predicted to win their races in this November's midterm elections to become the first two Latinas ever to represent Texas in Congress.

Sylvia Garcia
The big challenge for Garcia and other candidates who appeal to Latinos is getting voters to cast ballotsImage: picture-alliance/W.Rodriguez

Garcia hopes the backlash to the rhetoric emanating from the White House will motivate Latino voters to cast their ballots for her and other Democrats on election day. Her victory seems likely in a strongly Democratic district. Yet it's not clear whether the party can count on Latino voters to turn up on November 6 and help them wrest control from the Republican-controlled legislature. They're waiting to see whether anger at the Trump administration will serve as a wake-up call for a group with historically low voter turnout rates to voice its dissatisfaction.

Democrats bank on shifting demographics, Trump outrage

For years, Democrats have waited anxiously for changing demographics to help realize their dream of flipping Texas. The state has been a Republican bastion for decades — in the state's primary elections this year Republicans outnumbered Democrats by some 1.5 million to 1 million — but its rapidly growing Latino population has chipped away at the stronghold.

Read more: Is Paul Ryan's exit an ominous sign for Trump's Republican Party?

Garcia expects to see that reflected in the midterms this year.

"Whether it's a little wave or a big wave is yet to be determined, but I think Texas is going to go more blue this time around than before," she told DW, referring to the Democrats' party color.

Garcia runs her election campaigns in both Spanish and English to make sure she reaches as many voters as possible.

"I think the more we do that, the higher turnout we will have."

Historically, a strong majority of Latinos have voted for Democratic candidates. According to the Pew Research Center, an overwhelming number have long said the party has more concern for them than the Republicans do. In the 2016 presidential elections, about two-thirds of Latinos identified as Democrats or leaned in that direction.

More recently, Latinos have been incensed by the Trump administration's immigration policies, including the president's repeated demand to build a wall at the border with Mexico, the separation of migrant children from their parents at the US border, and Trump doubling down on his 2015 campaign speech accusing people coming from Mexico of being rapists and drug dealers.

Even when such issues don't affect an individual directly, they often hurt someone in the person's extended family or community.

Setting the Latino wave into motion

Although Latinos are a growing demographic in Texas, getting them to the ballot box always has proved to be a major challenge — particularly in midterm elections. In 2014, the Hispanic voter turnout rate hit an all-time low of just 27 percent. Even in the 2016 presidential elections when then-candidate Trump had clearly articulated his attitudes toward immigrants, less than half of eligible Hispanic citizens cast their votes.

With Democrats hoping to loosen the Republicans' grip on both chambers of Congress and establish an effective opposition to Trump in November, several groups are working hard to get Latino voters to the polls.

Read more: Cards Against Humanity takes on Trump's border wall

NALEO Educational Fund is a non-partisan organization focused on bringing Latinos into the fold of the American political process by helping them become citizens and providing them with resources to encourage them to participate in the elections.

"In Texas it's estimated that there are 1.3 million legal permanent residents that are eligible for citizenship," NALEO's Texas state director Claudia E. Ortega-Hogue told DW. "That is a power voting block that potentially could be mobilized to incorporate all of those Latinos into the political process."

Veronica Escobar
Veronica Escobar is likely to enter Congress representing El PasoImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Kaster

The organization provides resources like workshops on how to become a citizen, as well as a hotline that offers information about polling locations and dispels misconceptions about what documentation voters need to show. Garcia blames Republicans for introducing many of the hurdles preventing Latinos from voting.

"There are a lot of barriers that have been put in place by recent majority Republican administrations. Things like voter ID [laws], not being able to register online, not being able to register the day of the election, limiting the times of where you can vote and when you can vote."

Groups like NALEO have their work cut out for them, but also some reason to be hopeful. Hispanic voter turnout in the primary elections in Texas this year soared compared to 2014, and some political analysts point to the dynamic Latina candidates as responsible for the uptick.

Ortega-Hogue is optimistic about the future of Latino participation in US elections.

"We have seen throughout the years that Latinos are ready to take the next step if you give them an invitation," she told DW.

Texas set to send first Latinas to US Congress