SAN ANTONIO – Latinos in Texas face a contentious GOP primary battle and a Democratic one that is becoming less so as they head to the polls on Super Tuesday.
In a heavily red state, Texas’ Latinos still are more likely to vote Democrat in the presidential race and have been hugely supportive of Hillary Clinton in the past. Her campaign has promoted her links to the community in advance of the primary.
After a fierce battle with Sanders for Nevada's Latinos voters, Clinton is eager to dominate in Texas' Latino community.
Although Democratic Latinos won’t give Clinton the big bump she got in South Carolina from African American voters, they could help her further widen her lead over Sanders.
At the same time, Texas is a state where Republican candidates have consistently been able to count on 30 to almost half of Latino voters, helping the party hold onto statewide offices even as it has become a majority-minority state. But its increasingly hard right agenda and rhetoric has frayed the relationship.
In the GOP primary, Latinos are faced with a potential Texas primary winner, Ted Cruz, and second-place finisher, Donald Trump. Both have been publicly condemned by a group of conservative Latino leaders, including an evangelical group with more than 41,000 churches.
Expectations up to now have been that Ted Cruz would win his home state and Hillary would be the victor in the Democratic campaign.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showed Cruz leading Trump in Texas 39 percent to 26 percent and Clinton beating Sanders 59 percent to 38 percent.
Cruz has made several appearances hoping to blunt any threatened strike by Trump, who strengthened his frontrunner status by winning 46 percent of the vote in the Nevada caucus Feb. 23. Cruz held rallies in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio on the eve of the primary.
Marco A. Rodriguez, 48, a retired Marine Corps officer and combat veteran, was part of the crowd that packed into the San Antonio Shrine Auditorium for Cruz’s rally Monday, along with his his wife and six children. He said the family moved to Texas from Maryland “because we like the way they do things here.”
“What luck that Sen. Ted Cruz is running and, God willing, will win the nomination,” Rodriguez said. “We know it’s a tough fight but it’s definitely not over. But we do expect him to win, hopefully by more than double digits," said Rodriguez. "The only question is how many other states is he going to be able to win or pull a close second.”
But Cruz isn’t a candidate considered to have heavy Latino support. His rightward shift on immigration and his enlistment of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who among other things has referred to young immigrants as drug mules, has upset many Latino leaders. That includes several conservatives who had backed Jeb Bush's failed presidential candidacy. They’ve thrown their support behind Marco Rubio instead.
Sonia Rey, who attended a Rubio rally at an airport hotel last week, is among Rubio’s supporters. She was particularly persuaded he was the best choice after he said at the rally that his decisions would be driven by his faith. By contrast, watching Trump in the political race, “is like watching the Kardashians,” she said.
If the poll numbers stick, candidates will be dividing up their party’s delegates. To take them all, the candidate would have to win 51 percent of the vote. That has some hoping Rubio might pick up enough votes in the state to sustain him into the Florida primary, although some polls are showing him losing there as well.
“So many Latinos, including myself, did not vote for Mitt Romney. I just left the slots empty,” said Massey Villarreal, who cofounded the Hispanic Conservative Roundtable, a group of Latino conservatives, to oppose Trump and Cruz and and call for candidates to change their rhetoric regarding Latinos and immigration. “So here we go again, Ted Cruz talking about self-deportation … I’m going to make your life so miserable you are going to deport yourself.”
But Villarreal sees potential good in a Cruz win. “We got to get other states where Rubio’s winning or perhaps Cruz, or maybe Kasich in Ohio. That may be the only way we can stop Trump right now,” he said.
On the Democratic side, Clinton appeared confident that her Latino support would hold. Just to be sure, she had surrogates making visits throughout the state, most recently visits to Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio on the eve of Super Tuesday.
In San Antonio, former President Bill Clinton spoke on her behalf at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, where such things as folklórico dance classes are offered and the Tejano Conjunto Festival is annually organized.
“We know the support among the Latino community here in Texas has always been strong for her,” said Jorge Silva, campaign spokesman for Clinton's Hispanic media. “We really need them right now and we will need them in November if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination.”
Clinton won 66 percent of the Latino vote in Texas in 2008 and the state's popular vote, but she lost the delegate race. Texas has since changed its primary system, formerly known as the Texas two-step, that made that possible.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Marist poll shows Clinton beating Sanders by a 2-to-1 margin.
Bernie Sanders drew thousands to a rally last Saturday in Austin, a city known as more liberal than other parts of Texas.
“He is going after the city of Austin, but it is not a support that is spread throughout the state and we feel comfortable that we have support around the state,” Silva said.
In a reverse of Nevada, Clinton followed Sanders in setting up an operation in Texas, getting started in January.
Despite the walloping Sanders took in North Carolina, Jacob Limón, Sanders’ Texas state director, said the operation remains infused with enthusiasm.
Limón said young immigrants without legal status, often called Dreamers, who had traveled from Texas to Nevada to help get out the vote for Sanders there were also volunteering and pitching in back in Texas.
At stake in the Democratic race are 222 delegates that are distributed by state senate districts. Limón said the Sanders campaign is focusing resources in state senate districts where it can pick up the most delegates.
“We’ve always said this is about the delegate race. We are trying to maximize as many delegates as we can,” Limón said.