Presidential Elections Likely Will be Decided by “Reconquista”

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

“Reconquista” is a Spanish word for the reconquest of Spain from the Moors by Spanish Christians in 1492, the same year Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It also describes what has happened over the past 50 years in the American southwest, once part of Spain and now being reconquored by the descendants of the first settlers. Republicans should be very blue about this because it is turning the southwest into a blue pond that could prevent Republicans from ever winning the presidency again.

A little history may help. Within 20 years of Columbus’s discoveries Spanish conquistadors had conquered virtually all of Latin America. What is now Mexico and the American southwest was called New Spain. In 1819, a treaty with the United States specified the boundaries of New Spain. The northern border of New Spain was to be the 49th parallel, and today this is the border of California and Oregon, and Nevada and Idaho. New Spain then extended eastward into what is now Texas.

Mexico got its independence from Spain in 1821, and New Spain became part of Mexico. But in the Texas War of Independence in 1836, the Bear Flag Revolt in California a decade later, and finally the Mexican War of 1848, Mexico lost its northern territory to the United States. This included all of the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and half of Colorado. These states were settled by Anglos and became largely Republican over time.

But demographic and political changes have occurred in each of these states over the past few decades:

* • California. Fifty years ago California was 78 percent Anglo-white; 12 percent Latino. Republicans narrowly controlled both the California Assembly and Senate, held all but one statewide office, one US Senate seat, 17 of 38 members of congress, and had just given Richard Nixon their Electoral Votes. Today California is approaching 40 percent Latino, exceeding the Anglo white population. Republicans hold no statewide offices, fewer seats in the legislature and congress than ever, and have not carried the state for president in 30 years.

* • Nevada. Nevada’s demographics have been much like California’s with rapid Latino population growth, especially in vote-rich Las Vegas. Republicans carried Nevada for president as recently as 2004, but Democrats now seem to have a lock on the state, having won both Senate seats in the last two cycles, and the governorship and all but one state office in 2018. Democrats have put together an effective political machine with the largely Latino hospitality workers union that has made this once swing state safely Democratic.

* • Arizona. Latinos have grown from 30 percent of the Arizona population in 2000 to 37 percent today, and that is showing the state’s changing politics. In 2018, Democrats won the state’s open US Senate seat. The state is moving in a Democratic direction for president. Mitt Romney’s 54 percent showing in 2012 fell to just 48 percent for Donald Trump in 2016. Arizona seems primed to become a battleground state in 2020, in large part because of its continuing Latino growth.

* • New Mexico. This state has the nation’s highest Latino population at 49 percent, and the Latino population is younger than its Anglo-white population. Like the other southwestern states it has drifted from being competitive to being safely Democratic. For the first time in ages, Democrats hold all House and Senate seats, and all statewide offices. George W. Bush carried it in 2004 but it has not been competitive since.

* • Colorado. Colorado is 21 percent Latino but that population is growing, as is the state itself. It has been historically a two party state and both parties hold one Senate seat today. But as the Latino population has expanded, the state has become more Democratic, and Democrats have carried it three times in a row for president after years as a GOP voting state.
* • Utah. Utah was the least settled part of New Spain and North American Mexico. It has been safely Republican for more than a half century and remains so today.

* • Texas. Texas is the big question mark. Its Latino population, around 39 percent is actually slightly higher than California and Texas includes the historically Latino Rio Grande Valley where Latinos have held political power for more than a century. Texas Republicans have been careful to court Latino voters and did not alienate middle class Latinos as did California Republicans. But there are signs of movement away from the GOP. Trump received only 52 percent in 2016 against Romney’s 57 percent in 2012, and Democrats made gains in the congressional delegation and in the legislature in 2018. About a quarter of the Texas electorate is Latino, and it is not out of the question that Texas could be a battleground state in 2020.

The Latino reconquest of the southwest is being driven by immigration, a younger population and higher birth rates. Because of its fast growth, the southwest is likely to gain Electoral Votes in the next decade. Texas could exceed 40 Electoral Votes by 2024. Democrats picked up 13 House seats in these states in 2018, or nearly a third of their total House gains.

This is where future presidential and congressional control will be decided. The two most vulnerable Republican held US Senate seats for 2020 are in Colorado and Arizona. If Texas somehow slips away from Republicans and joins the rest of the southwest as Democratic voting, there is no way a Republican can be elected president.

Latino political clout is simply a matter of numbers, but it is all heading in one partisan direction, and could do to the rest of the southwest what Latino demographics have done to California.

The “reconquista” will be the biggest political story in America over the next few decades.

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