DALLAS, March 11 (UPI) -- Latino voter turnout could be historic in Tuesday's Texas primary as Democrats select nominees for governor and the Senate in hotly contested races that include three contending Hispanic candidates.
Tony Sanchez, a Laredo millionaire, was leading Dan Morales, a former attorney general, in the race for the Democratic nomination for governor, according to recent polls. The winner would face Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who has no primary opposition.
Victor Morales, a school teacher and former Senate candidate, has a good chance of getting into a runoff for the Democratic Senate nomination with one of the other leading candidates for the nod, Rep. Ken Bentsen, D-Texas, and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk.
Attorney General John Cornyn was expected to win the Republican Senate nomination since he has only minor opposition in the primary. At stake in November is the seat of retiring Sen. Phil Gramm, the first open Senate seat in Texas since 1993.
Hispanic voter turnout may be historic because of the high-profile races the Latino candidates are running this year, according to Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a non-partisan Latino public policy and research think tank.
"Latinos may be between 30 and 35 percent of votes cast on the Democratic side and that will be close to, if not, a new record," he said Monday. "It would smash the record but I think some of the enthusiasm has been dampened by the negative campaigning."
The negative campaigning has been confined to the race for the gubernatorial nomination where Morales and Sanchez have exchanged charges in recent weeks. The Senate race has been more issue oriented.
Secretary of State Gwyn Shea said Monday she expects 5 to 10 percent of the state's 12.2 million voters to cast ballots in the primary.
Sanchez, a 59-year-old oilman, banker and rancher, led Morales, a Harvard-educated lawyer, by 44 percent to 30 percent, with 3 percent for other candidates and 24 percent undecided in a poll released last weekend by The Dallas Morning News.
In the Senate race, Kirk and Morales each had 25 percent and Bentsen 17 percent, with 6 percent for other candidates, and 27 percent undecided, according to the News poll.
Either Morales or Sanchez will be the first Latino ever nominated for governor in a state the size of Texas and Gonzalez said the Texas Democratic party has already scored a major political victory in the battle for the Hispanic vote even before the election.
"The Democrats have trumped the Republicans by putting Hispanics at the top of the ticket," he said. "That is a big one."
In recent years, Republicans and Democrats have been battling for votes among the nation's growing Hispanic population but Gonzalez said, "This is quite a coup for the Democratic party."
But, he quickly added, the Democrats needed to make some dramatic moves in Texas.
Republicans hold all the major state offices in Austin with the exception of the Texas House where House Speaker Pete Laney remains the highest-ranking Democrat in the state. Republicans, however, are trying to replace him after this year's elections.
No matter who the Democrat nominee for governor is, he is expected to have a rough time with Perry, the former lieutenant governor who succeeded George W. Bush as governor. A recent Texas Poll conducted by the Scripps Data Center found that Perry would defeat either Democrat by more than a 2-1 margin if the election were held today.