One of the most competitive congressional races in the country could be decided in Spanish. Candidates in Texas' heavily Latino U.S. House District 23, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso, will debate next week entirely in a language other than English, a first for a congressional race in the state.
The Spanish-only debate between incumbent Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco, a tea party Republican, and his Democratic challenger, state Rep. Pete Gallego, highlights the growing influence of Latino voters in Texas — and U.S. — politics.
The district, which covers about two-thirds of the state's border area, would be a key win for Democrats, who are trying to pick up enough seats to gain control of the House. Most pollsters consider the race a tossup, with some giving the Republican incumbent a slight advantage.
The district is 66% Latino, with 53% of people speaking a language other than English at home, according to the most recent census. Such residents, who include many swing voters, are a key audience not just in Texas but nationally.
"We continue to wait for the mythical Hispanic voting bloc to show its muscle. They haven't yet, but it's only a matter of time. We've already become a majority minority state," said David Crockett, a professor of political science at Trinity University in San Antonio.
Many Latinos in that increasingly powerful but fractured voting bloc are expected to tune in to the debate.
"There are so many bilingual folks who, even if they're English-dominant, get their news from [the Spanish-language television network] Univision. It just seemed like a really good mechanism to reach them," said Bob Jackson, state director for AARP Texas, one of the debate sponsors. "It's sort of a reflection of the changing culture of the state and the nation."
Given the number of Latinos in Texas — 9.4 million, or about 38% of the state's population as of the last census — it may seem odd that Texas is only now seeing its first Spanish debate in a high-profile race. But the lingual landscape in Texas is complicated.
In July, a Univision reporter suggested a similar Spanish-language debate between Republican Senate candidates locked in a tight runoff race: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, another tea party favorite.
But Cruz, 41, a champion college debater and the son of a Cuban immigrant, does not speak Spanish. Rather, he told reporters, he grew up speaking a hybrid "Spanglish."
Dewhurst, on the other hand, 67 and a white oilman, is a fluent Spanish speaker. Having trained with the CIA in Bolivia in the 1970s, he was more than willing to debate Cruz in Spanish, although he had refused previous debates in English. Cruz declined.
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, 38, peppered his speech at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month with Spanish phrases, but has admitted he's not fluent. Like Cruz, who spoke at the Republican National Convention, Castro was raised speaking English and won't be debating in Spanish anytime soon.
Experts say the Univision debate Tuesday is a product of unusual demographics: Two candidates who are both not only Latino but bilingual Mexican Americans raised speaking Spanish.
The debate will be moderated by KWEX Univision 41 anchor Arantxa Loizaga, with questions posed by a panel of reporters from the station, the San Antonio Express-News and Texas Public Radio. English translations will be available for spectators at the time, but not the following Saturday morning when the debate is broadcast on KWEX and sister stations across the district, Univision staff said.
For Gallego, 50, a lawyer and native of the small town of Alpine in West Texas, Tuesday's debate is a chance to raise his profile in the sprawling district, among the largest in the country.
For Canseco, 63, a businessman from Laredo, the debate provides a platform to woo socially conservative Democrats and independents — among them, Catholics, evangelicals and small-business owners.
Some observers say that Canseco has more to gain from taking part in the debate.
"If there's an advantage, it would be for Canseco because Hispanics in Texas 2 to 1 vote Democrat. They will see two Hispanics, both comfortable in Spanish. If he performs credibly, a number of the viewers could potentially say, 'I've got to think about that guy,'" said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"He can only gain," said Austin-based Republican strategist Corbin Casteel, who worked for then-Gov. George W. Bush when Bush was learning Spanish. "He will do nothing but pull votes away from Pete Gallego."
But Canseco could also see the debate backfire.
The debate is ostensibly about Medicare and Social Security, but Canseco will probably also face tough questions concerning his stance on immigration, particularly Arizona's anti-immigration law, SB 1070, which he supports and Gallego opposes. If he stumbles, it could hurt his chances in November, observers said.
"In a very, very tight race like this, where a hundred votes could matter, it could make a difference," professor Crockett said.