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Texas shifting from GOP stronghold toward 2-party battleground

| Monday, July 15, 2013, 6:27 p.m.

AUSTIN — 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 in 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 waiting in the wings, including the party's telegenic new star, Sen. Wendy Davis, who led a dramatic, if 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 gubernatorial election in 2010, only 24 percent of Hispanics voted, compared with 44 percent of whites. Democrats have set up a huge 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? Strategists believe candidates will be able to 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 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.

No other state except California carries as much weight in national elections. A shift by Texas from a GOP stronghold to a two-party battleground would complicate the GOP's plan for winning presidential elections.

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