AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Laura Skelding

Old white guys are on their way out in Texas — which shouldn’t surprise anyone who pays attention to the demographics in the Lone Star State, and it’s Latinas and millennials stepping in to replace them.

Latinas, like Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who is running for lieutenant governor, are emerging as political stars. Due in part to Texas’ large, young Latino population, millennial voters are growing as the voting bloc who will elect them.

A few demographic facts are important to consider here. The majority of Texas public school children are Latino, and the 18-plus population will become mostly Latino between 2015 and 2024. Texas’ white population is aging faster than Latinos, and given their overwhelming preference for Democrats, political control over the second biggest state in the union could be up for grabs within the next decade.

Turning Texas blue is foremost on Grace Garcia’s mind; she’s the executive director at Annie’s List, a statewide organization raising money for Democratic female candidates. Women, Latinas for sure, and young people, are key to turning the state for Democrats. She sees New Mexico as a model, which shifted from a red state to blue one over the past 10 years in large part because of Latino voter participation.

Three of the Texas’ four female state senators are Latinas, Garcia said, just like two of the four new members most recently elected to the state legislature — huge given Latinas nationwide are underrepresented in public office. Annie’s List has been aggressively recruiting Latina candidates because the group believes that is a key step in encouraging Latinos to vote.

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It’s not that Latino voters don’t vote because they don’t care, Van de Putte said in an interview. They don’t think their vote is going to matter — and she sees it as her job as a Latina to change that.

“It’s not just the Latino vote. It’s going to be to get out those voters — suburban women, minorities, young people — the formula is there, the path to win,” Van de Putte said, adding that her job is to get people personally vested in elections. “These races are winnable.”

Van de Putte’s candidacy is showing that Latinas are viable statewide candidates in Texas, said Prof. Henry Flores, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. It’s also helping Democrats reach out to young Latinos.
Democrats are focusing on 18 to 35 year-old voters to win the governor’s mansion, Flores said, while Republicans are focusing on older white males to keep it. Hispanic 18-35 year-olds could outnumber whites in Texas in the next decade depending on which estimate you choose.

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But Republicans say that they have their sights set on millennials, too.

“Our party understands the need to engage young voters. Hispanics represent a large part of the younger generation,” said Judge Debra Ibarra Mayfield, the first Latina county court judge elected in Harris County, which contains Houston.

Mayfield said Republicans have been working with youth organizations and college groups explicitly to engage young voters, and bragged the GOP already had success in elections during the last decade winning up to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. The Republican Party’s tenets of economic opportunity, less government regulation, individual freedom and personal safety are attractive to everyone — including Latinos and young people, she said.

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“Hispanics are already party of our message, we are confident that when our party’s ideals are clearly communicated, we don’t have to compete for these votes,’” she said. As far as Latinas like herself, Mayfield said the Republicans in Texas identify the most qualified candidates, and “some just happen to be Latinas.”

One Latina recently elected to the legislature, supported by Annie’s List, is Mary Gonzalez, representing an El Paso-area district. Gonzalez, 30, said that political reality varies across the Lone Star State, so how empowered voters feel on the border may be different compared to Austin.

“People disconnect with politics because they don’t feel their voice matters, affecting participation for Latino people or young people. But recent political acts [show] how much our efforts can truly make a difference,” Gonzalez said, referring to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’ abortion-rights filibuster last year.

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If nothing else, Flores points out that Latina candidates like Van de Putte are building the foundation for future candidates and campaigns, young voter networks and donors — so the next candidate is more successful than she is.

And that’s a change that cannot easily be undone.