Can Latino Voters Change The Political Landscape?

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

It is February 12, 2028 and the President of the United States is standing at the podium of the U.S. House of Representatives, about to give his maiden State of the Union Address to the joint session of Congress—much of it in Spanish.

Is such a scenario plausible?

Quite possibly, if Congressional reforms are adopted that put millions of undocumented Latinos on a faster track to citizenship and voter empowerment.

But this begs a larger question: Is that even conceivable with immigration reform all but dead in this Congress making even modest reforms doubtful while Obama is still president and in light of the sharp differences between the Senate which passed a bill in July 2013 and a House whose members are bitterly opposed to any concessions?

If the issue is able to get a new lease on life, ground zero is Bakersfield, California—home of newly elected GOP Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy. He replaces Eric Cantor whose flirtation with amnesty for some immigrants is seen as contributing to his stunning defeat by a hitherto unknown Tea-Party backed opponent.

McCarthy’s district has one of the largest Latino contingents in the state although many do not vote. However they are critical to the agriculture industry—a prime driver of California’s economy—and the pressures on McCarthy from farm owners, labor and even local business groups to push for legislative reforms will be intense.

On the opposite side of Capitol Hill the battle lines are already drawn with Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, along with other hardline GOP Senators dead set against amnesty, the natural precursor to citizenship.

John McCain, the Arizonan whose state has experienced perhaps the largest influx of immigrants, is receptive to reform but is insisting on much tougher enforcement of border security as the first priority.

Leading the chorus of anti-reformers is Senator Ted Cruz of Texas who tried unsuccessfully to shut down the federal government and is a poster child for the Tea Party. Cruz has made no secret of wanting to be the next occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

However, he faces stiff competition from other rising GOP stars, such as Marco Rubio, the junior Senator from Florida of Cuban birthright and ex-Governor, Jeb Bush, who both harbor presidential aspirations and favor bringing more Latinos into the GOP fold.

The 2014 mid-term elections will say much about whether Conservative intransigence is a winning strategy— or whether it may only be hastening the end of Tea Party dominance and perhaps the Tea Parties themselves.

The biggest prize of course is capture of the White House in 2016. If McCarthy and Speaker John Boehner were to signal a willingness to accept even modest immigration reform, though highly unlikely given the Tea Party’s stranglehold, Democrats might have to contest for some of these voters.

Ultimately this could lead to a significant reshaping of the American political landscape in the years ahead, providing Latinos begin to register and vote in larger numbers.

We can already anticipate major changes in states now classified as having “minority-majority” populations defined as those with less than 50% non-Latino whites.

Included are Hawaii (which has never had a white majority), New Mexico, Texas and California. Both Texas and California have played outsized roles on the national scene having produced four of the last eight presidents, three of them (Reagan and both Bushes) Republicans.

Texas, the second most populous and a deep Red state, has the fastest growing Latino population. However its standing as a reliably Republican stronghold could be threatened if Latinos who have an overwhelming affinity for Democrats and represent over 38% of the state’s population begin flexing more of their political muscle.

However in this solidly Democratic state, given their normal voting patterns, their votes have negligible impact on the final vote breakdown in presidential elections.

In local and statewide races it is otherwise where the growing influence of Latino voters is already obvious and will only increase with the adoption of the top two open primaries..

Four of the last eight State Assembly Speakers—the most powerful position after the Governor—were also Latinos.

In Texas, the recent elevation of San Antonio Mayor, Julian Castro, to HUD Secretary puts him on the national stage for future high office.

According to latest statistics, thirteen of the forty largest metropolitan areas are minority-majority as are 11% of all U.S. counties. Depending upon immigration trends, the entire nation could turn minority-majority by 2046.

The impacts on politics, government, business, culture and much more is barely coming into focus.

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