Texas Republicans have swept statewide races for decades. So when Beto O’Rourke lost his bid for Senate against Ted Cruz by a margin of 2.6 percentage points in 2018, it was a wake-up call for Republicans, who had never had to try very hard to register voters.
“The party had never been intentional about it,” said Texas GOP chairman James Dickey. “We started right away in December 2018 pushing the idea that for the first time in anyone’s memory, the Republican party of Texas needed to be intentional about doing voter registration efforts.”
Since then, Dickey said the GOP has registered almost 50,000 new voters through a campaign that targets likely Republican voters, done largely through the mail. He also pointed to the new Republican Super PAC, Engage Texas, as evidence of the party’s enthusiasm for registering voters.
“There is a feeling that Republicans in particular have taken some things for granted in the last 10 or 15 years,” said Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for Engage Texas.
The group has raised nearly $12 million since it began in July 2019, according to the most recent FEC filings. And, Sullivan said, it has registered more than 100,000 Texas voters.
Engage Texas has 300 canvassers on the ground who ask voters about their views on immigration, abortion and guns, according to Sullivan. Once they gauge voter’s views, they ask if they’re registered to vote.
They go to community and church events, county fairs and Trump rallies.
“We’re looking for every stone to turn over to get conservative voters from all walks of life and all ages and ethnicities,” Sullivan said.
Chasing Latino voters
Republican efforts are underway against the backdrop of a non-partisan push to register Latinos, efforts that are likely to benefit Democrats, especially in years to come.
There’s evidence that shows a boost in Latino registration, and turnout, contributed to Beto O’Rourke’s close finish against Ted Cruz. One study by UCLA looked at the state’s most populous counties and found that in precincts where more than 80% of voters were Latino, there was a 54% increase in ballots cast, compared to 2014.
The Latino vote is the future of Texas, according to Antonio Arrellano, director of the non-partisan voter organization Jolt Initiative, which registers Latino voters in Texas. Arrellano is also director of the progressive group Jolt Action, which is partisan.
“Jolt was founded in 2016 a week after the election of President Trump,” said Arrellano. “And the reason we launched so quickly right after is that we recognized that the negative rhetoric that was spewed during that campaign, the attacks made so directly and unapologetically against our community, were only going to increase as this administration began to take hold.”
Jolt Initiative’s registration efforts focus on cultural competency and leveraging the power of young Latinas, Arrellano added.
“The future of Texas is female and she is a Latina,” he said.
Jolt Action’s new voter registration initiative Poder Quince offers a free photo booth for 15th birthday celebrations — in exchange, at the photo booth canvassers will be there to register voters as they take photos.
“By starting to activate young 15-year-olds at their quinceañeras, we are preparing the women who are going to write the next chapter of Texas history to do so,” Arrellano said.
Jolt’s creative efforts are aimed at changing the culture of civic engagement in Latino families. Though they’ve registered a modest number of voters — “hundreds,” Arellano said — they’re not alone. Groups like Mi Familia Vota and Voto Latino are also on the ground registering Latinos in Texas.
Barriers to registering voters
Though many of these voter registration efforts may benefit Democrats, the party still faces several challenges when it comes to registering voters, according to Rice University political scientist Bob Stein.
“For Democrats, there’s a much larger share of their base that’s not registered because they’re younger, non-Anglo, lower socioeconomic status, and they move around a lot,” Stein said.
And the state hasn’t exactly made it easy to register voters to begin with.
“We don’t have same day or election day registration,” Stein said. “We don’t allow any type of online registration.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 39 states offer online voter registration, but not Texas. Antonio Arrellano said he sees this as a major obstacle for registering young voters.
“People don’t even know what a stamp is anymore,” Arrellano said.
Meanwhile, Republicans are also trying to find new Latino voters to back the GOP. Sullivan, from Engage Texas, said the GOP group has hired bilingual canvassers to reach Spanish-speaking eligible voters.
Texas Republicans aren’t looking to win over all Latinos — they’ve netted a third of the statewide Latino vote for more than a decade. But that may be all they need to win in 2020.
“Respect for the second amendment, for border security, respect for life are issues that resonate strongly with Hispanic Texans and we want to make sure those folks are identified and registered,” said Sullivan.