One GOP fundraising cocktail party in Texas earlier this year displayed a familiar scene: glasses of merlot tipped as a state official rose to introduce a candidate for state representative. But here's what was different: The official, Texas railroad commissioner Victor Carrillo, son of an immigrant from Mexico, was introducing candidate Alex Castano, son of an immigrant from Argentina, and calling him "the future" of the Republican Party.
The future? Mr. Castano has all the makings of a great Republican politician: He is a personable conservative with strong Christian faith, entrepreneurial acumen, and seven children. But he's the future because the number of Hispanics, who at 40 million comprise the largest minority group in the United States, has increased by more than 50 percent every decade since the middle of the 20th century. The American political game for decades has been black and white, but the entrance of this third player is changing the way everyone plays.
Not that anyone is rolling over for the new arrival. For months Mr. Castano has worked hard to fight his way past three non-Hispanic conservatives in the March 7 GOP primary, with a runoff a month later if (as seems likely) no one gets a majority. If he survives he will get to face a handpicked, high-profile political heir: Jason Earle, son of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, the Tom DeLay watchdog who drew the ire of conservatives and applause of liberals with his dogged pursuit of the former House majority leader.
So Mr. Castano has been spending his Saturdays walking through his district's neighborhoods, often dressed unpretentiously in his Rice Owls jacket and blue jeans. Mr. Castano estimates that his campaign since November has knocked on 10,000 doors, and he humbly takes credit for 4,000 of those. "Sometimes I'm out here all day," he says. "People don't like it if you come after dark, so I'll start at 9 in the morning, stop for lunch and go until 5."
Mr. Castano does this while maintaining a real estate company he owns, Castano Properties. He says he knows he has to work harder because being Hispanic means he starts handicapped. One GOP primary voter whom Mr. Castano met greeted him with a question: "Castano-now is that a Mexican name or an Italian name?" To which he replied (truthfully), "Italian." "Good," he said she told him. "Because if it were Mexican, I wouldn't be voting for you."
This is proof to Mr. Castano of what his aides and the stats have told him about the liability a Hispanic surname presents in GOP primaries, regardless of qualifications. "Most Republican voters don't realize yet how important Hispanics and their vote are," he says. The way to overcome bias in the primary, Mr. Castano believes, is to visit people so that when they pick up the ballot in March, they will see his name and think, "Republican, conservative, nice guy," instead of simply, "Hispanic."
The Castano candidacy is part of a second GOP attempt to win the votes of Hispanics. During the Reagan years, ABC's Cokie Roberts once observed Hispanics exiting a naturalization ceremony and heading straight to a Republican registration table. They were attracted to "the party's emphasis on family, work, and prayer," she said-and President Reagan won 47 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1984.
In 1994, though, former California Gov. Pete Wilson's Proposition 187, perceived as anti-Hispanic for its denial of government social services to illegal immigrants, hurt the Republican Party. Even though Hispanics are split ideologically-one survey showed 35 percent apiece for conservatives and liberals-Democrats have dominated the Hispanic vote in recent elections and have far more officeholders: Texas, for instance, has 16 Hispanic Republican elected officials and 574 elected Hispanic Democrats.
George W. Bush for a decade now has emphasized the need for Republicans to appeal to Hispanics willing to leave behind the Democratic Party's bartering system of a handout for a vote. In 2000 and 2004, enlisting a San Antonio ad agency that specializes in marketing to Hispanics, he assured Hispanics that he would fight for their cuerpo y alma-their "body and soul." President Bush in 2004 received between 40 percent and 44 percent of Hispanic votes nationwide, and surpassed the 50 percent mark in several overwhelmingly Hispanic Texas border counties.
Victor Carrillo is one of the Hispanic Texans impressed that Mr. Bush is "familiar with and sensitive to the concerns of the Hispanic voter base." Appointed to the powerful Texas Railroad Commission in 2003, Mr. Carrillo argues that the GOP is the natural political home for Hispanics because it "stands for the same principles that I and most Hispanics were raised on: social conservatism, patriotism, economic empowerment."
Mr. Carrillo notes, though, that "inertia" can get in the way: "My parents and grandparents were Democrats, and that's how we as a people have always voted," even though the Democrats now stand for social principles most Hispanics oppose. How to break through? "The GOP needs to look for, hire, train, and retain more highly qualified Latino candidates."
One such candidate is Mr. Castano, whose mother came to the United States as a poor Argentine who spoke broken English. Since he understands "what it's like to be considered a second-class citizen," what he sees as Democrats' treatment of Hispanics particularly frustrates him: "They take us for granted." He says the Democratic message is, "You poor, dumb Hispanics. Here's a handout, so give us your loyalty and your vote in exchange." He says that Hispanics don't see themselves as "victims" and don't respond well to being classified that way.
Strong Catholic and Pentecostal conservatism forms the bedrock of most Hispanic households. That the war in Iraq and gay marriage could have actually helped reel in some Hispanic support for the GOP in 2004 flummoxes Democratic cynics. Ditto for school choice on the local level. Mr. Castano says Democrats have yet to update their "victim message" to Hispanics and are now coddling a group way too big for a high chair.
The trend line looks promising for Texas Republicans. In 2002, Republican Sen. John Cornyn received 30 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2002 Republican Rick Perry, running for governor against billionaire Hispanic Tony Sanchez, and Greg Abbott, running for attorney general, each pulled in around 35 percent. Texas Republicans are hoping to make it into the 40s this time, but much will depend on whether candidates like Alex Castano make it to November.