It’s the kind of headline we used to see in Texas: The Florida Senate just passed the DREAM Act. Texas used to teach Republicans how to court Hispanic voters, but things have gotten so far out of control here that Texas is now making Florida look normal by comparison.
This is not the way Karl Rove drew up the game plan at all. While Pete Wilson was using an anti-immigrant ballot initiative to get re-elected California governor in 1994, George W. Bush was sprinkling Spanish into his pitch to Hispanic voters that Republican policies on education and juvenile justice were right for them. As president, he spent years pushing immigration reform, and when in 2004 he got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote.
For a while, Rick Perry followed that script. He signed a Texas version of the DREAM Act, appointed minorities to big-time offices, and made sure anti-immigrant bills got lost in forgotten legislative subcommittees. When it came to the Hispanic vote, Texas Republicans seemed like they had it figured out.
Then came the pro-immigration rallies in 2005, and then the Minutemen. Immigration shot to the top of the list of issues Republicans cared about in 2005 and has stayed there ever since, pulling Perry rightward when he caught a case of national ambition. Now they say “border security” so much you’d think it was their drinking word, and the Republican Party has become a whites-only gun club.
Forget that illegal immigration gave Texas’ economy the sugar rush of cheap labor amid an economic boom. For Texas Republicans, being anti-brown isn’t just the new black. Opposing amnesty is now akin to a loyalty oath, even when it conflicts with bidness interests. It got so bad in the primary for agriculture commissioner that all the Republican candidates took positions diametrically opposed to the industry they wanted to oversee. The candidates opposed a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The farmers wanted one, for obvious reasons.
“Let’s just cut to the chase on this thing: Eighty-five percent of the agricultural labor that goes on in the state of Texas ... is done by either undocumented or illegally documented people,” said Steve Pringle of the Texas Farm Bureau. “If and when that labor supply is not there, that production simply goes out of business.”
Gone is Bush calling Mexican immigrants “Americans by choice.” Now the frontrunner for lieutenant governor says unauthorized immigration is an “illegal invasion” of people who rape and murder Texans when they aren’t spreading leprosy. And he’s winning because of this inflammatory balderdash, not in spite of it.
The only statewide Republican trying to navigate the divide between the expediency of pandering to racists and the necessity to welcome other races is Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor. But his squishy position on the DREAM Act-the law is “noble” but “flawed”-recalls John Kerry at his worst.
Republicans crossed this border from the other direction in Florida. Gov. Rick Scott ran a TV ad in 2010 promising to bring Arizona-style immigration policies to Florida. And as recently as 2011, he said he “completely oppose[d]” in-state tuition for DREAMers.
But now Scott is running 10 points behind his likely Democratic opponent, ex-Gov. Charlie Crist, who also once opposed in-state tuition for the children of unauthorized immigrants. But asking a politician to not only have deeply held convictions ignores the basic rule of politics: You win by getting the most votes and not by being right, or consistent, or honest, or tall (Actually, the taller guy usually wins).
That’s the pickle in which Texas Republicans find themselves when competing in primaries, but the danger for them isn’t that they so alienate Hispanics that Texas turns blue and becomes another California. Over drinks and off the record, Republican operatives know that anti-immigrant rhetoric is hastening Texas’ move to swing-state status, but they’re powerless to hold back the mob that elects their candidates.
But what works in 2014 might put Texas on the presidential battleground map in 2016, and that’s the kind of headline we haven’t seen in Texas for a long time.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JasStanford.