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Courting the Hispanic vote, Abbott reaches out

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photo by: Bob Daemmrich Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott speaks with reporters at an early campaign event at El Pato restaurant in McAllen, Texas, Jul. 16, 2013 photo by: Bob Daemmrich Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott speaks with reporters at an early campaign event at El Pato restaurant in McAllen, Texas, Jul. 16, 2013
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by Alexa Ura

AUSTIN (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) - With his wife and in-laws standing on the stage, Attorney General Greg Abbott last week highlighted his ties to the Hispanic community as he announced his gubernatorial campaign in San Antonio.

Abbott talked about his wife's Hispanic heritage and said he's grown to understand that culture during their 31-year marriage.

"It was a joining of hands, but it was also a joining of families," he said. "But more important than our marriage was a uniting of cultures: my Anglo heritage and Cecilia's Irish and Hispanic heritage."

The Abbott campaign is courting the Hispanic vote in a state that remains reliably Republican despite a growing minority population that tends to identify with the Democratic Party. It's a strategy the GOP in Texas is trying to implement on a larger scale, touting the party's emphasis on conservative social values. But Democrats in Texas say that the party has missed the mark with Hispanic voters and that the new gubernatorial candidate is no different.

The event in San Antonio marked the start of Abbott's campaign tour, which also featured stops in the border towns of El Paso and McAllen — in an apparent attempt to reach Hispanic voters.

Linda Vega, founder of Latinos Ready to Vote, called the approach "positive conservatism."

Abbott represents a different type of Republican, one who embraces policies that benefit the state rather than merely supporting policies along partisan lines, Vega said during Abbott's event in San Antonio.

Former state Rep. Aaron Peña — a Democrat who switched to the Republican Party in 2010 — said the Abbott campaign would set a new standard of Latino involvement not simply because of the candidate's wife's heritage but because she has helped him foster a relationship with the Hispanic community during their three decades of marriage.

"He has come to understand the Latino perspective," Peña said. "In his heart, he wants to make significant outreach to make sure Hispanics have a seat at the table in terms of determining the leaders of the state."

Abbott's efforts to reach Hispanic voters are part of a larger strategy of the Texas GOP. This year, the Republican Party of Texas will open its "victory centers" earlier than during previous election cycles to focus on voter registration and identification among minority groups and others who don't typically vote Republican, party chairman Steve Munisteri has said.

The state's population is 38 percent Hispanic, but fewer than a third of eligible voters in Texas are Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Battleground Texas, an organization that is working to turn Texas Democratic, has challenged Abbott's outreach to Hispanic voters since.

During a "Twitter Townhall" last week, the organization asked Abbott how he planned to communicate with the Latino community, writing the question in Spanish.

In his response, also written in Spanish, Abbott referred to his wife and wrote: "My wife is Latina. And I'll be able to communicate with voters."

Without a major Democratic candidate in the race, Cal Jillson, political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said, it's likely that fewer Hispanics will vote, but that more of those who do cast ballots will choose Republicans.

During the last gubernatorial election in 2010, only 5 percent of registered voters turned out to vote in the Democratic primary in March compared with 11 percent of registered voters who cast ballots in the Republican primary, according to the Texas secretary of state. Only 38 percent of registered voters actually participated in the November election.

Jillson said Hispanic voters are more likely to sit out the election than to vote for a Republican candidate like Abbott despite his Hispanic-friendly rhetoric and occasional use of Spanish in his remarks. 

"Dropping in a few words of Spanish is a nice touch, but Hispanics always wait for the third and fourth paragraphs of the speech, where you better be talking about education, health care and how to improve quality and access to both," Jillson said. "This is where Republicans run into tremendous problems."

Despite his outreach efforts, Tanene Allison, spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party, questioned the sincerity of Abbott's outreach to the Hispanic community because of his defense of laws that she said discriminate against minorities.

"No matter what type of [public relations] campaign Abbott wants to run to say he's reaching out to the Latino community, he's used his office to defend redistricting," Allison said. "We're looking forward to educating all Texans on Abbott's records."

As attorney general, Abbott has filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the Affordable Care Act, which he said would negatively affect health care for all Texans. In two other lawsuits, Abbott defended Texas' voter ID law and congressional and legislative redistricting maps that minority groups claimed did not represent the state's population growth.

In a ruling announced in June, the U.S. Supreme Court in effect sided with Abbott when it struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, allowing the state's voter ID law to take effect and eliminating the need for federal approval of Texas redistricting maps.  

Marc Campos, a Hispanic Democratic consultant, said Abbott's record with the Latino community is antagonistic.

"The mantra that Latinos have a home with Republicans because we're patriots, stand for family and share conservative values — that's a false mantra that's getting nowhere in the community," Campos said. "There's nothing that the guy rolled out this past week that makes Latinos turn their heads and think, maybe we should take a second look."

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