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In Texas, Republicans' gain in census also fraught with risk

If the GOP seizes the opportunity to expand its power in the state over the next decade, it could alienate Latino voters, who account for most of the state's population growth — and lean Democratic.

December 22, 2010|By Rick Rojas and Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Austin, Texas, and San Francisco — The windfall that Texas gained in the census — four new congressional seats — presents an opportunity and risk for Republicans who run the state.

The key is Latino voters, who are growing in number and clout and lean heavily Democratic.

Republicans hold the governorship and, after victories last month, overwhelming majorities in the Texas Legislature and congressional delegation. With unfettered control of the redistricting process, the temptation may be to draw the state's political boundaries to solidify Republican power and, if possible, expand the party's strength over the next decade.

The danger, however, is alienating Latinos who accounted for most of the state's population growth — especially in the big cities — and within 10 or so years may be the most politically powerful bloc in Texas.

"There is a tension between those situations," said Jerry Polinard, who teaches political science at the University of Texas-Pan American. Republicans "have got to keep an eye on partisan interests in the short-run, but they also have to keep another eye on what's happening down the road."

The best example may be California, where Republicans under former Gov. Pete Wilson adopted a tough-on-immigration stance that boosted his successful 1994 reelection bid but caused the GOP lasting damage among Latino voters. More recently, Latinos were key to Democratic Senate victories in Nevada and Colorado.

In Texas, Republicans led by then-Gov. George W. Bush tended toward a more moderate stance on immigration and other issues of concern to Latinos, reflecting the state's close and friendly ties to Mexico. Bush brought that attitude to the White House and made courting Latino voters and expanding the GOP's appeal to the community a priority.

Even so, Republicans in Congress embraced a hard line on immigration — thwarting Bush's effort to pass a comprehensive overhaul of federal law — and that attitude spread to Texas, where the issue has grown increasingly polarized in recent elections, said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

On Tuesday, Latino activists were bracing for both a political and legal fight over the apportionment of power. "That's how it always has to happen," said Joey Cardenas, state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. "We're going to get our butts kicked in the redistricting process."

Still, he said, neither party can afford to ignore Latino voters — or take their support for granted.

"Hispanics are maturing and becoming involved in both parties," Cardenas said. "When they read the census figures and when they learn of the growth of the Hispanic population, both are going to have to engage our community, whether they like it or not."

Most of the growth in Texas has occurred in the urban centers of Houston, San Antonio and Austin, said the state's demographer, Lloyd B. Potter. At the same time, the rural areas of West Texas saw populations decrease, and only the influx of Latinos there kept the population loss from being worse.

Less than half of the Latino population boom was spurred by immigration, Potter said. It has mostly come via childbirth, a natural increase that far surpasses that of other groups in the state.

Texas has a history of acrimony — and spectacle — surrounding its political map-making process.

After the 2000 census, when Texas gained two congressional seats, Democratic lawmakers fled the state in protest, holing up in Oklahoma and New Mexico before surrendering and returning to vote for a map that tilted heavily in the GOP's favor. Last month, the lawmaker who engineered the Republican strategy, former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, was convicted of laundering campaign money in connection with that redistricting effort.

Jillson predicted this next round could get equally ugly, likening the state's gain of four congressional seats to a dubious Christmas gift: "It's one of those you're almost afraid to unwrap because of the tensions it's going to create."

rick.rojas@latimes.com

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Rojas reported from Austin, Texas, and Barabak from San Francisco.

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