Many Paths to Victory: Texas

How to Win in Texas: Immigration Two-Step

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Bill White just might have a chance to be the next governor of Texas, thanks to support among Hispanic voters and disgust with Republican Gov. Rick Perry among independents. A June poll showed White, the Democratic mayor of Houston, polling even with Perry.

For years now, Democrats have been whispering about the prophecy of Texas becoming a blue state through the demographic shift of a burgeoning Hispanic population, and both parties in the state have historically taken a fairly centrist line on immigration issues. But with the recent passage of the Arizona law mandating that local law enforcement check immigration status even for the mildest infractions, the Texas detente may fall apart.

White and Perry are both trying to strike a delicate balance -- while a surge of Hispanic voters could put White over the top, he still needs to siphon white voters from Perry, who in turn must avoid trying so hard to appease the anti-immigrant wing of his party that he alienates the sliver of the Hispanic vote he needs to prevail. The result is that White has criticized the Arizona law in public and praised the contributions of immigrants but has largely avoided stating a comprehensive position on immigration -- his website doesn't even offer a section devoted to the issue.

Perry, for all his talk about secession, falls in the moderate wing of the GOP when it comes to immigration. When Arizona's law was passed, Perry said that he had "concerns" and that it "would not be the right direction for Texas." White carefully couched his objection in law-and-order terms: "Anything that diverts [police] from that job means the crime rate is going to go up, period." Still, he added that those residents who "work hard and play by the rules" should be left alone. White's framing is remarkably similar to the "hard working" trope often used by Democrats as code for white working-class voters; it defines immigrants as part of the community rather than apart from it.

In any other state, Perry would simply be shoring up his right flank instead of trying to reassure Hispanics that this isn't Arizona. But in Texas, he still has to maintain his standing among the 30 percent to 35 percent of Hispanic voters who in the past have voted Republican but might bolt if the party is increasingly perceived as overtly hostile. The Perry campaign has walked a delicate line, accusing White of running a "sanctuary city" in Houston and touting Perry's record on "border security" as often as it can.

There are political risks for Democrats in not taking white anxiety about immigration seriously, but given impending demographic changes, the greater risk may be in giving only mild attention to Hispanic concerns. The Hispanic vote leans Democratic now, but just as Republicans once locked up the black vote, things change. The White campaign is walking a tightrope on immigration, reassuring Hispanics that their civil rights will be protected while calling for stricter enforcement along the border. If it works, it could provide a template for Democrats in Southwestern states looking to win future elections.

-- Adam Serwer

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