AUSTIN, Texas — It would seem that Texas Republicans have never been stronger. An all-but-certain Republican successor is emerging to follow the departing Gov. Rick Perry. They're jubilant over their victory at the Capitol, where a GOP-heavy legislature plowed through a bill to sharply restrict abortions.
Behind the scenes, however, anxious Republicans and hopeful opponents are poring over data suggesting that the GOP hegemony may end. With the state's Hispanic population growing rapidly and voting overwhelmingly Democratic, Democrats should be able to compete for statewide office again in the next decade after a 20-year eclipse, strategists in both parties agree.
"Republicans have at most one two-term governor left in them. From 2022 on, everything is up for grabs," said Republican pollster David Hill, who runs a firm in suburban Houston. "Numbers don't lie," he added. "We're going to completely undo the alignment."
No one disputes that a huge opportunity is fast approaching for the Democrats. Potential candidates are already waiting in the wings, including the party's telegenic new star, Sen. Wendy Davis, who led a dramatic, if ultimately futile, effort to hold off the latest abortion legislation.
But what actually comes of it, and when, rests on a number of factors in dispute.
Can Democrats turn enough Hispanic residents into Hispanic voters? In the last governor's election in 2010, only 24 percent of Hispanics voted compared to 44 percent of whites. Democrats have set up a massive new voter targeting effort aimed at pushing the Hispanic rate beyond 30 percent, potentially enough to close the party's vote gap in elections.
Can Republicans attract a larger share of the Hispanic vote and neutralize the demographic bulge? Republican strategists believe future GOP candidates can stretch the meager 38 percent Perry got in his last race into the 40s by working harder to appeal to this group. But how to do it-- by stressing the GOP's self-help economics or conservative social values -- is a matter of debate.
"There clearly is a wave out there. It's up to the each one of the parties to figure out how to ride it," said Todd Olsen, a Republican strategist and key adviser to Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
The consequences of what happens extend far beyond Texas. No other state except California, which has the nation's largest population, carries as much weight in national elections. A shift by Texas from a GOP stronghold to a two-party battleground would seriously complicate the GOP's plan for winning presidential elections.
Few foresee any changes in the short term. Even without three-term incumbent Perry on the ballot, leading Democrats have not rushed to replace him. Texas' Republican attorney general, Greg Abbott, who already has a $20 million campaign treasury, appears to be a strong favorite to win the governor's race.
The era of Republican dominance in Texas came about when conservative whites began moving en masse to the party two decades ago--a phenomenon felt across the South. The Democratic political organization began to atrophy, leaving the party ill equipped to capitalize on the growing Hispanic immigration.
Now, Democrats insist, a change is at hand.
By 2020, Hispanics are projected to reach more than 42 percent of the state population, up from 38 percent in 2010. They will be the state's largest racial or ethnic group. Whites will rank second at 39 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau projections. Newly eligible Hispanic voters will outnumber newly eligible whites four to one.
"Ultimately, it suggests they would be increasingly dominant," said the state's leading demographer, Steve Murdoch, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston.
In February, President Obama's 2012 campaign field director, Jeremy Bird, set up an Austin-based operation to identify and register the roughly 1.5 million Hispanic citizens who are not on the voter rolls. A similar effort during the presidential campaign increased Obama's Hispanic vote in Florida, Colorado and Nevada. The Texas group has raised more than $1.1 million for the effort, according to a campaign disclosure report scheduled for release Monday.
Volunteers are canvassing Latino neighborhoods in Austin, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and in the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande River valley. A small-scale version in 21 precincts in largely Hispanic East Austin in 2010 helped produce turnout 20 points higher than the county average.
"No matter what happens in 2014, we need to see it as a stepping stone," said Bird. "We really need to, long term, cement the infrastructure."
But Republican campaign officials insist that Hispanic voters are not inherently Democrats. Persuasive Republican candidates will still win elections, said David Carney, a longtime Perry adviser.
"People don't vote for the person who signed them up," he said.
Strategists in both parties are assessing how different issues play with Hispanic voters, including abortion legislation, which limits the kind of public services poor women use, but also conforms with many Hispanics' Roman Catholic doctrine.
Inside the GOP, arguments are raging over whether the party is doing enough.
"There is a sensation that the Democrats are on the move in our state and we can't be behind the curve," said Carolyn Hodges, president of the Texas Federation of Republican Women.
Recently, the federation endorsed allowing the children of illegal immigrants obtain legal status. The state GOP is also counting on candidates like George P. Bush, the namesake of two former U.S. presidents who is running for state land commissioner, to project a friendly face to the Latino community. Bush's mother was born in Mexico.
But the numbers are ominous, said Mark McKinnon, top media consultant to President George W. Bush's presidential campaigns. Because Republicans haven't bonded as well with the Latino community, "Democrats will soon be within striking distance of turning the state blue again," he said.