Texas Governor's Race: Arizona Law a Wild Card

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Melina Mara / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Texas Governor Rick Perry

A famous Texas political aphorism declares that "there is nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos." But now, in Texas, who should be striding down the middle of the wide highway of state politics but the most successful Lone Star pol today: Gov. Rick Perry. The Republican, who not too long ago conjured up visions of a militarized border, appeared before a crowd of 1,800 members of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights organization, and declared that the Arizona immigration law — the darling of voluble members of the right — was not a good "fit" for Texas. He drew thunderous applause.

Perry told La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights organization, that while the controversial Arizona law had been adopted out of frustration over the failure of the federal government to enforce the border, it was not a tactic he would adopt. Texas has been enriched by its cultural diversity, Perry told the group. “The fact of the matter is we're making a difference in the state of Texas. As we improve border security and as we sustain legitimate commerce, we ensure that no one demonizes people because of the color of their skin or the sound of their last name," Perry said.

Cultivating the Hispanic vote has long been part of Perry's canny political strategy — and the legacy of his predecessor as governor George W. Bush. (Bush's simpatico attitude won him almost 40% of the Texas Hispanic vote, while Perry has garnered about 30%t of the vote, according to Henry Flores, a political scientist at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.) But the Arizona immigration law is an unexpected wild card in the current Texas race for governor and it is not only prompting some fancy footwork from Perry, but also his Democratic opponent in November, former Houston mayor Bill White. Both candidates are trying to thread the demographic needle with calculated political maneuvers — moves that could expose Perry to charges from the right that he is going soft on the issue, while leaving White vulnerable to criticism from the left that he is not being outspoken enough on immigration reform.

The stakes also are high in Texas. "This is the state that is going to win the lottery," says Lydia Camarillo of the San Antonio-based Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. She notes that the next governor will preside over a redistricting process that could see Texas garnering three to four congressional seats and a Latino state senate district.

White is attempting to pull in Anglo moderates from the center, but there is likely some support for the Arizona law in that group — a mid-June Washington Post-ABC poll found moderate and conservative Democrats evenly split on the issue. White must also gin up enthusiasm among Hispanic voters, a vital segment of the Democratic party's base, at a time when many are dispirited by the economy and perceptions of ethnic discrimination, according to Camarillo.

During his turn at the La Raza podium, White told the delegates that he would veto any Texas manifestation of the Arizona bill, though the main focus of his speech was education reform — an issue that has traditionally been a priority for Hispanic voters. But the Arizona law and the subsequent federal-state face-off has catapulted immigration to the top of the list, Camarillo says, making it a "litmus test" for many Latino voters — just as choice is a key issue for many women voters. With the exception of a Denver Post poll that showed 62% of Latino Colorado voters supporting the Arizona immigration law, other polls reflect Hispanic discomfort with the law. Texas Hispanic voters are "impatient" and "looking for something bold" on the issue from White and the Democrats, Camarillo says.

Democrats, says Flores of St. Mary's University, recognize anger over the immigration issue could push Latino support beyond the usual 65% threshold in key states, giving the party a "firm hold on the electoral college" in 2012. He will publish a study later this summer that suggests keeping the immigration debate alive is vital for the White House in 2012. That, however, complicates the political picture on the ground in Texas. Hispanic advocates of immigration reform are vocal components of the Democratic base; and proponents of border security are just as loud a constituency among the GOP faithful. Both parties, however, must court independents who inhabit the center.

However, says Flores, Republicans, who have made the war on drugs, crime and national security, part of the immigration debate, can also benefit from the controversy. "The Republicans need to keep the waters muddied," Flores says. That's why Perry's pivot against Arizona is a piece of near genius: he remains tough on the border but against the racism and extremism critics see in the Arizona law. It allows folks in the middle to pivot — and swing toward him.

White's apparent focus on winning Anglo moderates may have the effect of dampening Hispanic participation in November — and thus diminishing the turnout of the overall Democratic base. Both Flores and Camarillo say there are few signs yet that Hispanic grassroots Democrats are energized. Adds Camarillo: "You cannot have a swing election if you do not have the base." In what will likely be a low turnout election — only 33% of Texas voters participated in the last governor's race — White needs to energize the Hispanic vote, which was between 11% and 14% (according to various polls) in 2006. Political scientist Richard Murray told the Houston Chronicle that White will need 15% of the Hispanic vote and must hold Perry to 30% of the Latino vote. Democrats took some solace in a mid-June poll by Public Policy Polling showing Perry and White effectively tied, but this week a new Rasmussen poll has the race 50-41 with Perry leading among likely voters. And considering his reception at La Raza, Perry may have earned a few more points to boost the next round of surveys.