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Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay

Latin persuasion

Campaign 2012 | Republicans hope that a young group of popular Hispanic conservatives, such as Ted Cruz of Texas, will help the party win over Hispanic voters in November. Keen on stopping them, Democrats look to make immigration reform a higher priority

Issue: "The GOP and Hispanics," May 19, 2012

HOUSTON-Ted Cruz wasn't born until 1970. But his journey to becoming a candidate for the U.S. Senate began in 1957.

That's the year his then 18-year-old father, Rafael, fled Cuba. He had spent the previous four years fighting against the reign of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Rafael endured imprisonment and torture that left him without his front teeth.

Arriving in Austin, Texas, Rafael couldn't speak English and carried only $100 sewn into his underwear. But he found a job washing dishes seven days a week, earning 50 cents an hour. He used the money to help pay for his education in mathematics at the University of Texas and eventually started his own business.

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Now, 55 years later, his son, Ted, is trying to join Marco Rubio in Washington as a Hispanic Republican senator. "When I was a kid, my dad used to say to me, 'When we faced oppression in Cuba, I had a place to flee to. If we lose our freedom here, where do we go?' There is no question that better explains why I am running for the Senate."

The Texas Republican primary to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is a crowded field: Ten candidates have filed and four are serious contenders. That's not surprising since the winner of the May 29 GOP primary will likely win the seat: It has been 18 years since a Democrat won a statewide office in Texas.

Cruz, consistently running second in the polls behind current Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, has never run for elected office before. But he has garnered a long list of endorsements from national conservative leaders including James Dobson and Tea Party Sens. Jim DeMint, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Pat Toomey. National organizations such as FreedomWorks have spent nearly $1.7 million in independent expenditures either to promote Cruz or attack his Republican rivals. (WORLD repeatedly tried to obtain an interview with Dewhurst, but multiple attempts through two prominent individuals in or close to the Dewhurst campaign did not lead to one.)

Supporters point to the conservative credentials Cruz displayed as solicitor general of Texas. From 2003 to 2008 Cruz authored 70 Supreme Court briefs and argued before the Supreme Court nine times. He backed the right to display the Ten Commandments on state capitol grounds and defended the Pledge of Allegiance after a federal appeals court struck it down for containing the words "under God."

But the national attention and money being devoted to Cruz-in a state that will likely remain Republican no matter who wins the primary-also is due to the desire among conservatives to attract more Hispanic voters.

George W. Bush received between 37 and 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in winning the 2004 presidential election. But John McCain barely earned 31 percent four years later. Polls for this year's election show this downward trend could continue: a Fox News survey in March revealed that just 14 percent of Hispanic voters would support Mitt Romney against Barack Obama.

That's an ominous sign with the Hispanic population, now at 50 million, making up 16 percent of the U.S. population. The fastest growing segment of the electorate, the Hispanic population jumped by at least 50 percent over the last decade in 37 states. "Today I do not believe that any Republican candidate ... can win the White House without Hispanic support," said Alberto Gonzales, who served as the nation's first Hispanic U.S. attorney general under the Bush administration, during a March speech in Wisconsin.

Right now Texas helps Republicans counter the advantage Democrats enjoy in California. But if Republicans get 31 percent or less of the Hispanic vote going forward, then even Republican strongholds like Texas could be at risk as the Hispanic population grows. And if Texas, and its significant electoral votes, turns Democratic, then Republicans may face an insurmountable hurdle when it comes to winning the White House.

"Most Republicans are lousy at reaching out to Hispanics," Cruz said. "We hang up a piñata and throw a Cinco de Mayo party. We are patronizing and condescending, and it doesn't work." Cruz believes that the Hispanic community is profoundly conservative. Most of its members believe in faith, family, and patriotism. Their core vales of hard work and independence seem ideally suited to a Republican philosophy instead of a party promoting a big government entitlement mindset, Cruz argues.

"When is the last time you saw a Hispanic panhandler," Cruz asks. "They work their fingers to the bone to provide for their children. There is no value that resonates more within the Hispanic community than [that] people who start out with nothing can achieve their American dreams."

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