Texas Republicans have nine weeks to make decisions that might haunt them for years.
Depending how the March 4 party primary campaign goes, Republicans can either lead Texas or lose it in coming years because of party positions on immigration enforcement.
In a primary with little else to argue about, some challengers are grabbing for a toehold by complaining that incumbents haven’t done enough to oust illegal immigrants from state colleges or crack down on the mythical “sanctuary cities.”
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me that some candidates in a primary are trying to make a name and get a few votes,” said Juan Hernandez of Fort Worth, a Republican strategist and commentator for CNN en Español.
“But it also wouldn’t surprise me if after the primary, the candidates move to the center and support reform. For Republicans to stay in leadership in Texas, we must properly address immigration.”
The math is pretty simple.
Texas Republicans must keep 40 percent of Hispanic voters to keep power.
With San Antonio Democrats such as lieuteant governor candidate Leticia (San Miguel) Van De Putte and Mayor Julian Castro gaining momentum, Republicans will be challenged soon to hold Texas, if not this year.
The lesson of California is fresh. In 1994, former Gov. Pete Wilson tried to bar illegal immigrants from getting education and health care.
By next election, the Republican candidate drew 38 percent. California has voted Democratic ever since, except for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, chosen in a special election.
With West Texas Republicans Rick Perry and Tom Craddick as governor and speaker of the House, Texas was more practical, emphasizing public safety in border counties but never demonizing the workers driving an estimated $17.7 billion per year in growth.
Perry has steadfastly defended signing the 2001 bill charging in-state college tuition for illegal immigrant Texas high school graduates who are applying for citizenship.
“Rick Perry has done more for immigrants in Texas than President Obama has done for them nationally,” Hernandez said.
“As Republicans, we need to make sure we support our principles. We will win if we support families and entrepreneurship.”
State Land Commissioner and lieutenant governor candidate Jerry Patterson is one of the candidates caught in campaign crossfire.
Like Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and two other challengers, Patterson supports enforcing the borders and opposing a no-fee amnesty to grant illegal immigrants residency.
But he also spoke eloquently for the winners at the last state convention when Texas Republicans voted to support a permanent guest worker plan.
“We have a position, and I support it,” Patterson said.
“The problem is, there’s so little real information out there. Candidates get these buzzword slogans and use them as a wedge.”
Patterson, who has a campaign video honoring Tejanos who fell defending the Alamo, mentioned opponent Dan Patrick’s increasingly louder railing against “sanctuary cities.”
“ ‘Sanctuary cities’ — tell me what that means,” Patterson said.
(The term originated about 1980 when churches on the East and West coasts harbored Central American refugees and cities openly defied federal immigration enforcement. Later federal reports use a looser definition.)
“And people say, ‘No amnesty!’ ” Patterson said. “Look, if you don’t have any other plan for what to do with 12 million illegal aliens [nationwide], then that’s a de facto amnesty. Here in Texas, Republicans have a plan.”
Patrick, a Houston-area radio owner and talk host, uses the most alienating language, bragging that he’s a “border champion” and publishing seven proposals to punish illegal immigrants without listing any penalties for illegal employers.
The bitterness even spilled into intraparty politics last month, when the Minnesota-based Cafe con Leche Republicans exchanged social-media barbs with State Republican Executive Committee member Sara Legvold of Keller, an outspoken immigration restrictionist.
By backing a guest-worker plan, Patterson said, the state party “has made an outstanding move forward on immigration.”
Some Republicans still want to turn back.