Republicans envision South Texas Latinos in bid to win back Congress


McALLEN, Texas – In the Republicans’ attempt to regain control of Congress, this traditionally Democratic part of South Texas has quietly become a leading battleground.

After making unexpected gains last November, the GOP is focusing on a trio of House seats in the region as key targets ahead of next year’s midterm elections. These include the 15th Congressional District, which has not sent a Republican to Washington since its inception in 1903, but where a GOP newcomer came within three points of victory in 2020.

Republican leaders believe the party is on the verge of a political realignment among Hispanic voters in communities along the US-Mexico border like McAllen. Inroads among Latinos could potentially offset the party’s growing vulnerabilities among voters, especially in the suburbs. Next year’s election will determine whether these changes are lasting or a more limited response to the turbulent politics of the Trump era, as Democrats hope.

But with Congress only having a six-seat majority in the House, Texas Democrats say the party needs to take the threat seriously.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that we need to be concerned about this and that we need to devote more resources to it,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.

The main target of Republicans in the region is the 15th arrondissement. It currently stretches from the border county of Hidalgo, which is over 90 percent Hispanic, to the eastern suburbs of San Antonio. Voters here have never sent a Republican to Washington, which is why national party leaders were so stunned when small business owner Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez came under 10,000 votes. beat Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a two-term Democrat.

Republican Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez, an upcoming general election candidate for the 15th Congressional District, speaks in her office in Alamo, Texas on July 8 Eric Gay / Associate Press

Sitting behind her desk at Alamo earlier this month, wearing cowboy boots and a campaign t-shirt, De La Cruz-Hernandez, who is running again, attributed her performance to former President Donald Trump. She said her “colorful personality” sparked a new interest in national politics that changed the minds of many Texans about politics.

“When they paid attention to what was going on on the national stage, I think the lights started to come on for people where they saw, you know what? My conservative values ​​no longer correspond to the Democratic Party, ”she declared. “The bottom line is that Hispanic values ​​are pro-God, pro-life, and pro-country. And we are conservatives here.

Border security, she said, is “the number one problem from the north side of the district to the south side of the district”, as border crossings have skyrocketed. And the state’s Republicans have focused on the issue, with Trump hosting a post-presidential border visit last month that drew hundreds of supporters.

Lawmakers in Democratic states have focused on blocking a sweeping electoral overhaul bill and have camped in Washington – although some Democrats representing the Rio Grande Valley have not joined them.

Nationally, the Pew Research Center estimates that about 38% of Hispanic voters supported Trump in 2020, up from 28% in 2016. While Trump lost Hidalgo Country by 17 percentage points in 2020, he has more than doubled his support from 2016, when he lost by a whopping 40 points, winning just 28 percent of the vote. And he toppled a handful of other neighboring districts, including Zapata County, which Democrat Hillary Clinton won between 66 and 33 percent, and Kenedy, which Clinton won between 53 and 45 percent.

Beyond those gains, Republicans point to other data points to support their optimism. Javier Villalobos was elected mayor of McAllen in June, becoming the first Republican to hold the post in decades. The Texas redistribution process, which is controlled by state Republicans, could produce districts that are even more favorable to GOP candidates, as the lines are redrawn to reflect the state’s gain of two seats in Congress.

Villalobos, who joined Trump at his border briefing and was hailed as a “superstar” by other officials at the event, said he viewed his election as part of a trend driven by both by Trump and by economic changes as more and more Hispanics entered the middle. classify.

“Historically, Hispanics are very conservative, but they traditionally vote Democrats. And little by little, even the elderly are changing, ”he said. “And that’s a beautiful thing. The competition is good.

It is not clear whether the gains made by Republicans in 2020 will continue when Trump is not on the ballot in 2022. Democrats insist their poor performance last year was unique and point to unique circumstances, including the party’s decision to largely forgo anyone campaigning during the pandemic. McAllen’s mayoral race, they also note, was non-partisan and the turnout was under 10,000 votes.

Gonzalez, the Democratic incumbent from the 15th arrondissement, insists he is not impressed with De La Cruz-Hernandez’s strong performance. He described last year’s results as “an anomaly” caused by a pandemic that devastated the district, killing thousands of residents, including some of his personal friends, and dissuading many elderly voters from voting.

He highlighted the concrete gains made under the Biden administration that he will campaign on, including an economic recovery, mass vaccinations and relief dollars that have helped keep small businesses open.

“At the end of the day, everyone is running on results and the work we’ve done and we will be running on what we’ve done for people,” he said.

But Hinojosa, the Democratic president of Texas, was more cautious. He admitted that the party had been caught off guard by an increase in the number of first-time voters who voted for Trump. Because no one thought the races would be competitive, little money and effort was spent on contests, without solicitation, banking by phone, or voting campaign.

Trump’s message, he said, has also resonated with voters, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, where poverty rates are high and the economy remains hampered by a closed southern border. He cited concerns about the future of the oil and gas industry, the border, and calls by some Democrats to “fund the police,” which have “scared” many voters with ties to the forces of the United States. ‘order.

“It was just an almost perfect storm for Republicans here,” he said, noting that the party lacked the “resources to build support here” because the race was not seen as competitive.

In preparation for next year’s election, he said he has already held meetings in South Texas with local leaders, formed coalitions along the border, and hired a full-time organizer.

“We’re going to be spending a lot more money and a lot more time than ever before to make sure what Republicans are saying doesn’t happen,” he said. “We will not take any risks. “

But interviews with voters suggest there is work to be done.

Eryc Palomares, 42, who lives in McAllen and works in a medical lab, said he was delighted to see others like him who had severed their Democratic Party allegiance “because that’s all we have seen, that’s all we’ve known here. “

It’s “like they’re already brainwashing you: go vote Democrat.” That’s all it was here, ”said Palomares, who now tends to vote Republican.

“People are waking up,” said Manuel Pescador Jr., 54, a workplace safety consultant and local activist who lives in McAllen.

Pescador Jr. said he changed parties seven years ago, rejecting what he saw as a culture of “handouts and false promises,” and now goes after immigrants who enter illegally. United States.

“They come here, they refuse to assimilate and they are there to use whatever they can, in any way they can. And that’s why I call them ‘depletors’, ”he said. “That’s why these Hispanics who can vote, vote Republican, because we know who’s in.”

Joe Guerra, an independent who lives in McAllen, did not vote in last year’s presidential election but said he was not at all surprised by the GOP’s gains.

“The Republican Party was, for years, only a symbolic presence here. But the conservative spirit has always been there, ”he said. “They were still there and (Trump) just had the ability to get them out. That’s what they always have been.

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