As U.S. House Members of Color Depart, Texas GOP Grapples With Its Lack of Diversity

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Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Texas Republican Convention attendees stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in Fort Worth.

Come next fall, there might not be a single person of color among Texas Republicans in the U.S. House. But that’s not top of mind for Gerard Garcia.

“Diversity is welcome, but when I vote I’m more focused on the politician’s positions,” he said.

Garcia, a Hispanic Republican from San Antonio, said he was disappointed that his congressman, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Helotes) is retiring at the end of his term. Hurd is the lone black Republican in the U.S. House, and one of only two Republicans of color in the Texas House delegation. The other is U.S. Rep. Bill Flores of Bryan, who is also retiring in 2020. (Flores, who has Hispanic roots, has previously called himself “an American first.”)

But Garcia, a software engineer, said his most important consideration is that Hurd’s successor is someone who “continues supporting the president’s agenda,” supports small businesses and takes action to curb illegal immigration.

Then there’s Tom Ayers, a fellow San Antonio Republican, who thinks – especially following Hurd’s retirement announcement – “there should be more black representation,” in Texas’ 23-member U.S. House GOP delegation.

“That voice does need to be there,” said Ayers, who is white.

For some party leaders, working to fill that void makes sense for reasons moral and political: Recruiting more candidates of color could help the party make inroads with voters of color and harness the political power they’ve amassed.

But they’re up against members of their own party who don’t see the lack of representation in their ranks as a problem. And while some Texas Republicans take pains to avoid explicit discussions of race, the Texas GOP faces a diversity crisis that’s hard, if not impossible, to ignore.

In the conservative state with the largest share of people of color, Texas’ GOP delegation in the U.S. House could be all white after the 2020 election. And the party is unlikely to make many gains back in the state Legislature, where the GOP’s members were 96 percent white in January.

As of last year, just 41 percent of Texans were white.

Those numbers have led many GOP politicians and operatives to warn that if Republicans want to have a future in Texas, they must do more than just pay lip service to the need to be more representative of their constituents.

“If you believe in good government, that needs to be good government for all and everybody needs to have access to it,” said Steve Munisteri, the former chairman of the Texas GOP and a senior advisor to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

Not everyone agrees. Other Republicans say the party shouldn’t consider the color of a candidate’s skin and should instead focus on his or her merits.

“Green, yellow, gray, orange or purple, it doesn’t matter,” said Quico Canseco, a Hispanic Republican who represented the 23rd Congressional District from 2011 to 2013. “Do they reflect the values of the area and of the district so they can carry the Republican flag forward or not? That’s really all it is.”

‘We’re Not Doing It Effectively’

Hurd, in his retirement announcement, said he wants to “see a Republican Party that has more folks that look and sound and operate like I do.” Including Flores and Hurd, there are fewer than 10 House GOP legislators of color in the current 116th Congress.

Calls for more racial representation in the House GOP delegation and the Texas Legislature have spurred outside groups into action. The state party cannot pick and choose who to help in primary races, but groups like the Hispanic Republicans of Texas point to six Hispanic Republican members it has running for the Texas House in 2020. Executive Director Trey Newton said the group works to address both cosmetic and structural issues – from helping its endorsed candidates build a logo and website to trying to increase the number of Hispanic people running on the GOP ticket.

“From our perspective, the best outreach into the Hispanic community is another Hispanic,” Newton said. “It takes a Latino to go to a Latino and talk about their shared values.”

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Republican Tony Gonzales is running for the U.S. House in District 23 after Will Hurd announced his retirement from Congress.

Another group, the Associated Republicans of Texas, founded in the 1970s to help keep the Legislature red, is revving up legislative candidate recruitment with a specific eye on women and candidates of color.

At the national level, the National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer “has given the NRCC a mandate to ensure our new Republican majority in 2020 reflects the diverse makeup of our country,” a spokesman for the group said. The House GOP campaign arm has recruited 23 people of color in Texas, though not all of them have filed yet, said the spokesman, Chris Pack.

And Empower America, whose honorary chairman is Tim Scott, a black Republican senator from South Carolina, is working to “identify, train and invest in diverse leaders who believe in freedom for all.”

“It’s a problem for there to not be diversity in the conservative delegations in any level of government, and specifically in Texas,” said Executive Director Jimmy Kemp. “We think there are candidates who are really attractive and understand the American dream and the American idea, and we’re hoping to be helpful.”

Many Republicans have pinned hopes on Wesley Hunt, a black Army veteran competing on the Republican ticket in Texas’ 7th Congressional District, which is currently held by U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Houston). Hunt was recruited as a candidate by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and has easily led the primary field in fundraising. Another black candidate, Brandon Batch, announced last week for the congressional seat to be vacated by U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Midland). And Allen West, a black Republican, recently launched a bid for Texas GOP chair, challenging current party leader James Dickey.

“We have to engage and we have to talk about policy inclusiveness,” West said. “I have never liked the word ‘outreach’ and for some reason the Republican Party lost that connection with the black community in America. I think they just kind of gave up. They threw in the towel.”

‘A tricky problem’

But their efforts, in part, run contrary to members of their own party who don’t believe race should be an important factor – or one at all – when judging potential GOP candidates.

And the party’s own messaging downplays the role of racial identity in American life, making it hard to explicitly recruit people of color.

The GOP has dominated Texas politics for two decades. President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, when he received the support of roughly 11 percent of black Texans who voted and 34 percent of Hispanics who voted, showed that Republicans could win nationally by winning a majority white vote, which Trump won in Texas 69 percent to 26 percent, according to CNN’s exit polling data.

Those numbers have split Texas Republicans into two camps: those who believe the party has a diversity problem and those who are fine with the status quo.

“I think Texans’ attitudes generally is, ‘If you can do the job, we don’t care about your ethnicity,’” said former U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, who held Hurd’s seat from 1993 to 2007.

But the GOP’s grip on the state appears to have loosened. In 2018, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz – the most prominent Hispanic Republican in the state – won reelection over former Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso by a margin of less than 3 percentage points. In 2020, Democrats are hoping to flip control of the Texas House. Many say the state’s changing demographics have made Texas more competitive.

“The reason why Texas is the biggest battleground state is because the Democratic Party has built a winning coalition that actually represents the state of Texas,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “What we’ve seen for the impending doom of the Republican Party is that it has refused to expand its electorate and expand its base over the past several cycles.”

Munisteri, the former state GOP chair, said he understands why some Republicans prefer to group everyone under one label: American. “In one sense you can argue people who have those views are the most inclusive,” Munisteri said.

But, he said, the problem with painting with such a broad brush is that America’s fraught racial history has created difficulties for people who aren’t white.

“We’re not trying to play racial or ethnic politics, we’re just trying to recognize the reality that there have been some ethnic groups in our country that haven’t always been treated well and some that are still struggling to make sure they have equal rights,” Munisteri said.

Finding new candidates hasn’t proven easy. People of color face distinct challenges when they enter the political arena: difficulty in raising money, getting party support and a need to combat racial stereotypes. Some candidates believe having a Hispanic surname can be a setback in a Republican primary, especially in low-information races.

And Republican candidates of color are sometimes reluctant to discuss issues of diversity and their own racial identity, lest they turn off primary voters who might not like them bringing race into the discussion.

“The Republican Party in Texas and other places is becoming a lot more homogenous with respect to race,” said Carlos Algara, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis.

Because of that, “there’s not a strong bed of minority candidates for Texas Republicans to choose from,” Algara said.

An additional hurdle for Republicans of color running at the congressional level in 2020 is choosing whether to publicly align with Trump, who has been denounced as racist for a number of recent comments, including encouraging a chant of “send her back” about a Somali-American congresswoman.

“Race is a very tricky problem for Republicans, particularly in the age of Trump,” Algara said. “It doesn’t surprise me that Texas Republicans … don’t want to talk about race because inevitably you can’t escape a conversation on race without talking about Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric.”

Still, a number of candidates of color are hoping to make gains. In the race to replace Hurd, Tony Gonzales is one of several Republicans running in one of the nation’s biggest swing districts.

“As Texas and America’s demographics begins to change, it’s important for the Republican party to match that,” Gonzales, a San Antonio native of Hispanic descent, said.

“I think a lot of people are surprised to see a young, Hispanic Republican. There’s definitely something new there, and to me it’s exciting,” he said.

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