By Sabrina Rodriguez
Republicans have long argued that Donald Trump’s gains in majority-Hispanic South Texas were not a one-time deal and, instead, the beginning of a larger trend.
The primary results on Tuesday night proved they’re right.
The GOP saw continued strong turnout in the state’s southernmost border counties in the latest display that Trump’s gains among Hispanic voters were no anomaly. But that was only part of the story. When the dust clears after the May 24 runoffs, as many as eight Latinos — including six women — could ultimately be Republican nominees for congressional seats across Texas. In the Rio Grande Valley alone, at least two Latinas will carry the GOP nod.
With the GOP continuing to pump money into South Texas and more Hispanic Republicans, particularly women, running for office, there are signs the traditional balance of power in the longtime Democratic stronghold is beginning to shift.
“We want to show Hispanics that this is what the Republican Party looks like. It looks just like them,” said Mayra Flores, who won the GOP nomination for her South Texas-based congressional seat. “We were raised to think that the Republican Party was for the rich and only white men and that’s not true. Look at us. We are the face of the party.”
Flores was one of three Hispanic women in the Rio Grande Valley to finish in first place on Tuesday, along with Monica De La Cruz, a Trump-endorsed candidate who also won her primary outright, and Cassy Garcia, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who was in the lead spot heading into a May runoff election for the seat currently held by Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar.
If any of them win come November, they would be the first Hispanic women — and first Republicans — to hold a congressional seat in South Texas.
In Texas’ four southernmost counties, where Latinos make up more than 90 percent of the total population, Republicans received an increased share of the primary vote compared to 2018, the last midterm election. In Brownsville’s Cameron County, GOP votes made up 35 percent of the total share, compared to 23 percent in 2018. In smaller Willacy County, GOP votes jumped to 26 percent of the vote share, from 8 percent in 2018. In Hidalgo County, home to McAllen, Republican votes made up 29 percent of total votes cast, up from 17 percent in 2018.
Neighboring Starr County — where Trump went from losing by 60 percentage points to Hillary Clinton to losing by only 5 points to Joe Biden — had the most dramatic shift in South Texas percentage-wise. Only 15 votes were cast in the GOP primary in 2018, less than one percent of the votes cast. This year, it was 1,632 votes — 24 percent of the share of votes.
The GOP’s gains with Texas Hispanics are not near enough to threaten the Democratic advantage in the region: Democrats still received a strong majority of the primary vote on Tuesday. But Democratic strategists, pollsters and leaders acknowledge that the numbers are worrisome and that the party needs to be paying more attention to the Rio Grande Valley and surrounding areas.
“For those of us looking for hopeful signs that 2020 was an isolated incident in terms of the drop-off in Latino support for Democrats, we just didn’t get that hopeful sign in these primary results,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm. “This is evidence that there’s more of a challenge there.”
Bonier cautioned that the Texas primary results shouldn’t be used to prognosticate about Democrats’ national prospects — and offered the caveat there were more competitive primaries on the GOP side compared to Democrats, which could ultimately affect turnout numbers. Still, he acknowledged, Democrats should be concerned.
Republicans touted the Hispanic women’s victories in South Texas as indicative of the party’s strengthening ties with Latinos across the state.
The primary results show “it is not a one-off that was directly tied to Trump, but a larger movement of Hispanic voters, particularly as they leave some of these urban areas, that are starting to vote more like their neighbors in more conservative areas,” said Leslie Sanchez, a longtime Republican strategist and author of “Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other.”
In interviews, Flores and Garcia — both first-time candidates — said they believe part of the reason Republicans are gaining traction is frustration over years of one-party rule in the region. They argue that Democrats have taken Hispanic voters for granted for too long, creating an opening for the GOP to court them.
“They’ve been making the same promises year after year and don’t keep them,” Flores said. “Why should we keep giving them our vote?”
Flores, Garcia and other Hispanic Republicans explain that the shift also stems from frustrations with the Biden administration and Democrats over their immigration and border policies. They argue that the GOP push for tougher border security, and a range of other issues, such as support for the oil and gas industry and opposition to abortion rights, have helped draw in their supporters.
“For years, Hispanics have voted Democrat, but now you talk to them and so many don’t feel like they identify with the party or the direction it’s going in,” Garcia said. “They feel the party is going too far left. And, really, we’re fairly conservative here.”
Sanchez said the GOP inroads are poised to continue — and might even accelerate because of the symbolic significance of the numerous Latina nominees this year.
“If one of them breaks through and wins, it’s history-making,” Sanchez said. “If two or three break through, it transforms Texas. It’s just groundbreaking.”
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