Greg Abbott’s mother-in-law ad key to campaign’s Hispanic success

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Standing under a glaring sun at a get-out-the-vote event in the Rio Grande Valley last week, Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa wrinkled his nose at the thought of the Spanish- and English-language television ad featuring Greg Abbott’s Hispanic mother-in-law.

Hinojosa, who lives in Brownsville, said no one in the predominantly Latino Valley really cared whether Abbott, then the front-running Republican candidate for governor, had a Hispanic mother-in-law — or wife, for that matter — or whether his mother-in-law thought Texans would love having him as governor, as she says in the ad.

A week later, the day after Abbott walloped Democratic competitor Wendy Davis by more than 20 percentage points and garnered a share of the Hispanic vote considered impressive for a Republican, Abbott’s campaign advisers said in a post-election debriefing that the ad was the most effective of the campaign and helped them come very close to achieving their goal of winning 45 percent of the coveted Hispanic vote.

“That ad literally ran at some point for 2½ months,” strategist James McKay said.

Abbott’s pollster Chris Wilson said the campaign decided to air the ad longer because data showed, week after week, that it kept changing people’s opinions of Abbott for the better. The ad later was featured on billboards in the Valley, a Democratic stronghold, with an image of Abbott smiling warmly at his mother-in-law, Mary Lucy Phalen.

According to an exit poll, Abbott secured 44 percent of the Latino vote on Tuesday to Davis’ 55 percent. That is the largest share any Republican gubernatorial nominee has secured since 1998, when George W. Bush was re-elected in a landslide against an underfunded and overmatched Democrat. Abbott also won more votes than Davis among Latino men by 1 percentage point, something senior strategist Dave Carney said the campaign was “very proud of.”

Republican inroads

Democrats, however, continue to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the ad, and on Abbott’s true appeal to Hispanics, arguing that his showing among Latino voters was entirely a function of their low turnout rather than their actual political preference.

“We lost because our base did not turn out,” Hinojosa said at a post-election panel in Austin.

They also point out that Abbott did not achieve his goal of winning the most Republican-friendly county in the Valley, Cameron, or come close to 45 percent of the Hispanic vote in Hidalgo County, the most populous in the Valley, where Davis bested him 63 to 35 percent. And they have questioned the accuracy of the exit poll, conducted for several media companies, as they have pointed to an election-eve poll of Hispanic voters who had cast ballots during early voting, or said they were planning to, that showed Abbott had secured only 32 percent of the vote.

Political experts, however, say Abbott made notable inroads with Latinos considering Republican Party rhetoric was arguably more anti-Hispanic than it was when Bush was running for governor, and the Democratic candidate had star power and backing from national donors and groups like Battleground Texas that were specifically focused on rallying the Latino vote.

Abbott pulled it off, they say, with a smart and tailored approach that was unique to Hispanic voters and involved almost 20 visits to the Valley.

“He was a constant presence in South Texas,” said Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, where the first Abbott-Davis debate took place.

Polinard said anytime a Republican candidate can crack 40 percent of the Hispanic vote statewide “they are considered relatively successful” but that Abbott’s performance is “all the more impressive” because Davis and her cohorts also were aggressively courting Latino voters.

“I think it, in part, reflects the focus of the Abbott campaign, to pay much more attention to the Latino vote,” he said, describing the mother-in-law ad as “very effective.”

Hispanic turnout

Democratic strategist Matt Angle, who worked as an outside adviser for the Davis campaign, points out that Abbott “got the same number of Latino votes, give or take a few thousand, that Rick Perry got” in 2010, when the outgoing governor secured 38 percent of the Hispanic vote. “It was just a higher percentage of a lower overall turnout.”

Exit polls showed that Hispanic voters made up the same percentage of the electorate (about 17 percent) that they did in 2010, despite big population increases.

“Certainly you could argue the Democrats didn’t turn out the vote well — that’s true — but the idea that somehow Greg Abbott expanded the Republican appeal to Latino voters — that’s simply not true,” he said, adding that “if Republicans really wanted to expand their appeal to Hispanic voters, then they wouldn’t pass things like” the state’s strict new voter ID law, which Abbott is defending in court as attorney general.

Political experts say the Democratic argument about turnout is true but also harp on Democrats’ inability — even with the help of groups like Battleground Texas and a lot of money — to move the needle on turnout for Hispanics (and Anglos).

Davis did notably worse among Hispanics than the 2010 Democratic candidate, former Houston Mayor Bill White. And she lost three of the four counties that make up the Valley during the Democratic primary, when she had a little-known competitor with a Hispanic surname.

“There was no real sense of urgency because Abbott was not seen as anti-Hispanic,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.

Exit polls also showed Abbott performed better among Hispanics than Republicans did across the country Tuesday. Latinos nationwide voted for Democratic candidates by a 2-1 ratio, suggesting something much different was going on in Texas.

Angle also blamed that on low Hispanic turnout.

“There is a core group of Hispanics who do vote for Republicans, but you’ve got a lower overall Hispanic participation in Texas,” he said. “Overall, Hispanics are not more conservative in Texas than they are anywhere else.”

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