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Texas in Democrats' sights

A TIME OF TRANSITION

Latinos could play a role in changing the state from red to blue.

November 09, 2008|Peter Wallsten | Wallsten is a Times staff writer.

WASHINGTON — As they review the results of Tuesday's election victories and begin looking toward future campaigns, some Democrats have settled on a rallying cry: Texas is next.

It sounds improbable for the Republican bastion that produced President Bush and served as an early laboratory for Karl Rove's hard-nosed tactics. But Texas is one of several reliably red states that are now in Democrats' sights as party strategists begin to analyze a victorious 2008 campaign that they believe showed the contours of a new movement that could grow and prove long-lasting.

A multiethnic bloc of Latinos, blacks, young people and suburban whites helped to broaden the party's reach Tuesday well beyond its traditional base in the Northeast and the West Coast -- carrying Barack Obama into the White House and expanding the party's majorities in Congress.

That new formula was evident in state exit polls and county-level election results showing that Democrats scored gains from a voting base that is growing progressively less white than the population that helped forge Republican advantages in past elections. In state after state, from GOP strongholds like North Carolina, Indiana and Colorado, minorities made up a larger share of the vote than in the past, and in each case they helped turn states from red to blue.

A major shift in the Latino vote took place in Florida and the Southwest, where the Obama campaign spent at least $20 million on targeted appeals and organizing, including one television ad in the final days featuring the candidate reading Spanish from a script.

Latinos made up a greater share of the electorate than in the past in every Southwestern state, according to exit polls compiled by CNN. And in each Southwestern state, as well as Florida, the Democrat pulled a bigger percentage of the Latino vote -- a turnaround from 2004, when President Bush cut deeply into Democrats' hold on Latinos and won that bloc in Florida, where many Cuban Americans remain loyal to the GOP.

"The Democrats have built what looks like a coalition they can ride for 20 or 30 years," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the pro-Democratic group NDN, which has spent millions of dollars targeting Latino voters.

Obama's winning coalition, some Democrats said, could mark a turning point in history: Republicans can no longer achieve an electoral college majority with their decades-old strategy of winning whites in the South and conservatives in the heartland. Now, Democrats have a path through the Rocky Mountains and even some states in the old Confederacy.

Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress who in 2002 co-wrote "The Emerging Democratic Majority," said that Obama "was able to realize the political potential in the ways the country is changing." That, Teixeira added, bodes well for the party's future because "you have all these ascendant groups leaning increasingly Democratic."

Texas, the nation's second-most-populous state and home to 34 electoral votes, was not a 2008 presidential battleground, and Republican nominee John McCain won there by a comfortable margin. The Obama campaign spent little money there, apart from recruiting volunteers to work in other states.

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More untapped potential voters

But strategists believe the large and growing Latino population there remains untapped, along with a large black electorate, which could make Texas competitive with a major investment of time and money from an Obama-led Democratic Party.

Similar possibilities exist in Arizona, another heavily Latino state that leans Republican, and Georgia, with a growing Latino population and a black electorate that grew from one-quarter of the overall voters four years ago to nearly one-third on Tuesday.

In turning Florida and Ohio, among other states, this year, Obama organizers focused for months not only on registering new voters but also on tracking down blacks, Latinos and young people who had been registered but never voted.

One top Obama strategist said the campaign had already sought to build the Texas state party, handing over a database with hundreds of thousands of voter names and phone numbers gathered when Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton competed in the state's Democratic primary. Much of the campaign's attention in that effort focused on Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley.

The strategist, Cuauhtemoc "Temo" Figueroa, Obama's top Latino outreach official, said the state could be taken seriously as a presidential battleground if Democrats could win statewide races there in 2010. "I don't know if it's four years or eight years off, but down the road, Texas will be a presidential battleground," Figueroa said.

The big question is whether Tuesday's results can fairly be interpreted as a sea change in American politics when so many unusual circumstances were at play.

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