Before the March primary, a handful of Hispanic Republican leaders questioned the tone on immigration among some GOP candidates – especially statements from State Sen. Dan Patrick, who’s running for Lieutenant Governor.
This year's Republican primary has been an exercise in running to the right of everyone else on the ballot. In the race for Lieutenant Governor, candidates began pushing further and further rightward when talking about border security.
In one TV ad, Patrick – the frontrunner headed into a runoff – touts his opposition to in-state tuition at Texas universities for qualifying undocumented children. And Patrick's campaign website uses the phrase "Stop the Illegal Invasion!" as a fundraising tool.
Now, several Hispanic Republican leaders are voicing opposition to Patrick’s rhetoric, and the overall tone of the Lieutenant Governor's race.
"What I was hearing … was so hot that it was beginning to alienate an entire segment of the Texas voting population," says Dallas Republican State Rep. Jason Villalba. He wrote an open letter to the candidates asking them to rethink their tone on immigration.
"And since that time I think you have seen a significant throttle back in some of the more harsh rhetoric that has been used on the trail," Villalba says. But others, including Houston businessman Massey Villarreal, went as far as to say they that if Patrick won the GOP nomination, they'd back Democratic nominee Leticia van de Putte.
George Antuna, cofounder of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas, understands why some would contemplate backing the other party. "You feel kind of in a quandary when you're thinking to yourself … all my hard work … I feel like I'm going backwards when it comes to Latino outreach or our Latino efforts," Antuna says. "And so I can totally understand why Massey may feel like that, as well as many others."
But Antuna thinks it's still better to try to change things from inside the party.
"I would prefer to be able to work with individuals within the party, to be able to convey to them that, 'You know maybe we do need to be a little more sensitive with our rhetoric,' as opposed to trying to work from the outside looking in," he says.
That's what Rep. Villalba is doing. Last week, he launched a statewide tour speaking to Republican groups about the future of the party – and the critical role Hispanic outreach will play.
"If we are interested in winning a political constituency that we do not currently have within the Republican Party in big numbers, then we have to be sensitive to the way people perceive the way we engage and talk about these issues," he says. "Because if we don't, we won't win them."
Villalba and others will continue working to moderate the Texas GOP's immigration language in the lead to the May 27 runoff. But the general election in November – with a Hispanic Democrat running against Patrick – will provide a new set of challenges.