The first time I saw Ted Cruz in action was last year at the 2011 Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. He was seven months into his campaign for the Senate nomination in Texas, and had already been the subject of a glowing cover story for The National Review. His speech to the Values Voter crowd was the usual blend of partisan red meat and personal anecdote: He railed against Obama's "socialism," promised to restore free enterprise, decried abortion, told the story of his family's journey to America — he's the son of Cuban immigrants — and issued a cry for "change" conservatives could "believe in."
The usual, in other words.
But there was something ironic in Cruz's performance. For as much as he denounced Barack Obama, he shared the president's flair for public speaking. His speech was slow-building, but by the time he made his pitch — "We need to take back the Senate!" — the crowd was with him 100 percent, chanting back his lines, and even adopting the "yes we can" call-and-response of Obama's 2008 campaign.
It doesn't come across in the video, but in person, it was electrifying.
That's why I'm not surprised that Cruz prevailed in his fight for the Texas Senate nomination, even though he was a first-time candidate up against a powerful lieutenant governor. Then and now, Cruz is a favorite of the most conservative members of the GOP, and as my colleague Abby Rapoport wrote, yesterday affirmed that fact for the former solicitor general, who worked in the Bush administration and who represents a new generation of radical Republican elites.
But this is only part of his political identity. Cruz isn't just an avatar for the libertarian chic that's lodged itself in the Republican establishment. He's also joins Marco Rubio in Florida, Brian Sandoval in Nevada, and Suzanna Martinez in New Mexico as part of the GOP's growing attempt to appeal to Latino voters in the Southwest and across the country.
Even if Latinos remain a largely Democratic constituency, there's a difference between George Bush's nine point deficit in the 2004 election — he won 44 percent of Latinos to John Kerry's 53 percent — and a 30- or 40-point deficit, which is what Republicans are facing in this election against President Obama. The GOP hopes candidates like Cruz can appeal to those Latinos who share conservative social values, and thus give them a stronger foothold in the demographic.
It's certainly true that Cruz could have a local effect. Like all voters, Latinos like to support candidates who look like them, and while Cruz is of Cuban descent — unlike Texas Latinos, who are predominantly of Mexican descent — pan-Latino identification could lead Cruz to a somewhat higher margin of Latino support, compared to the usual Republican candidate.
But it's hard to imagine anything more than a slight increase. Nationally, Latinos are strongly Democratic — by a 2 to 1 margin — for substantive, not symbolic, reasons. They are more likely to support government intervention in the economy. They are more likely to support government guarantees for health care, as well as more funds for education and social-insurance programs.
The economic vulnerability of Latinos — their unemployment rate is among the highest in the county — ensures continued Democratic support. "If you feel vulnerable, as if you may need help, in the short-term, in terms of job support, health care, better education for your kids, you will continue to vote Democratic," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
It should be said that things are a little different in Texas. There, Republicans have made a long and serious effort to appeal to Latino voters, in part because Latinos have long been a part of the state's political culture. Groups like Hispanic Republicans of Texas have successfully elected Latino GOPers to Congress, the Texas Supreme Court, and the state's House of Representatives. At the moment, HRC has endorsed 18 Latino Republicans for various offices across the state. Ted Cruz was himself a beneficiary of this boosterism; Club for Growth — the conservative anti-tax group — pumped in $5.5 million to help Cruz win his race for the Republican Senate nomination. And given the Republican Party's commitment to finding and promoting Latino candidates, it's likely that even more money will enter the state, in order to boost the ranks of conservative Hispanic lawmakers. Unlike in Arizona, where GOP lawmakers are outwardly hostile to Latino immigrants, Texas Republicans are more likely offer benefits to immigrants, legal and otherwise (as you'll remember, it's what cost Governor Rick Perry his chance in the Republican presidential race).
As a whole, however, the current incarnation of the Republican Party is simply ill-suited to the needs of most Latino voters. It still represents a predominantly middle-class Anglo-majority, which feels secure in its status, and would prefer fewer taxes and less government intervention. This describes some Latinos, but not a majority. And while individual Latino Republicans can make up for some of the deficit, it won't translate to greater support for the party as a whole, in the same way that the GOP can't capture African American votes by elevating black Republicans.
The picture may change when Latinos are more thoroughly integrated into the middle-class, but that will take decades.
There's one other reason for why Cruz, and other high-level Latino Republicans, are unlikely to improve the GOP's image among Latinos writ large. Latino vulnerability is cultural as well as economic, says Jillson. He explains, "Republican legislatures say, 'You really ought to consider voting Republican because you share our cultural views — but you don't want your cousins coming anywhere near the voting booth, so we have voter ID and immigration laws. And so, Hispanics view the Republican overtures skeptically."
Barring a sea change in grassroots Republican sentiment, there's little chance the GOP will lessen its push for anti-immigration laws and voter restrictions. For now and the foreseeable future, Republican politicians will continue to find political gain in running against "illegal" immigration. In an interview earlier this year, for example, Cruz explained his own support for stringent border security laws: "On the question of illegal immigration I think we should stand firm and stand tall. I am strongly opposed to illegal immigration."
Given his story and his background, Cruz seems like he should have substantial appeal to Latino Americans. But like his counterparts in other states, his chief and overwhelming support is from Anglo-American Republicans. Once Cruz establishes himself on the national stage, and we see the extent to which he is a standard-issue conservative Republican, we'll abandon this idea that he could appeal to Latinos. The same thing happened with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, when it became clear that he would not deviate from Republican orthodoxy.
When it comes to the future of the Latino vote, Cruz's win is less interesting than the Democratic Party's decision to give San Antonio mayor Julian Castro the keynote address at its national convention. Castro is young (37 years old), progressive, and represents the hopes of Democrats when it comes to states like Texas.
The idea of Democrats coming to power in Texas may seem as far-fetched as Republican hopes with Cruz, but it's not. As mayor of a major Texas city, Castro is on the vanguard of a transformative change in American politics. As the Latino population grows, and assuming it continues to stay Democratic, states like Texas and Arizona — with large Hispanic populations — will become competitive in national elections.
Cruz is an interesting figure, and I look forward to seeing what he does in national politics. But if we're thinking of the future of Latino politics, Castro is the one to pay attention to.