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Republicans Make Headway in Texas’ Booming Latino Communities


FILE - This June 1, 2021, photo shows the State Capitol in Austin, Texas.

Democrats have long dreamed of flipping Texas from a bedrock Republican state to one that elects more Democrats to Congress and awards its mother lode of electoral votes to a Democratic presidential contender, something that hasn’t happened since 1976.

That dream has been buoyed by dramatic demographic changes in Texas, where the population has grown at more than twice the national average for the last 20 years, and people of Latin American descent account for 60% of that growth.

But Democrats have a problem. Latino voters, regarded as a key Democratic Party constituency, are showing a greater willingness to vote Republican, even in Texas’ southernmost counties along the border with Mexico.

In 2016, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received less than 28% of the vote in Hidalgo County, the most populous of Texas’ border counties, and one in which Latinos account for 93% of the population. In his 2020 reelection bid, Trump scored almost 41% of the vote.

Last year, Hidalgo County’s largest city, McAllen, elected its first Republican mayor in 24 years.

Such results may serve as a warning sign for Democrats ahead of November’s midterm elections that will determine control of Congress for President Joe Biden’s final two years of his current term.

Texas has long been critical territory for the Republican Party. The state sends the country’s largest Republican delegation to the House of Representatives and hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.

‘Exciting time to be a Republican’

But Democrats have historically dominated at the ballot box in the land between San Antonio and the Mexican border — a vast, sunny scrubland where Spanish-speaking cowboys founded the first Texas cattle ranches a century before English-speaking settlers arrived.

Political observers predicted for years that Latino population growth in other parts of the state would boost support for Democrats in Texas. But for the most part, it hasn’t happened. In fact, while South Texas still leans toward the Democrats, Republicans are making inroads.

“It’s an exciting time to be a Republican,” said Adrienne Peña-Garza, the Republican Party chairperson for Hidalgo County. “The new generation is much more bold than I was.”

Peña-Garza is the first Latina to head the Republican Party in Hidalgo County. She told VOA she has critics who maintain that a woman — especially a Hispanic one —shouldn’t be a Republican. Yet, she says she has seen many Latina and Latino Republicans enter the political arena and is encouraged to see the party grow in her area.

Hildalgo County remains Democratic

Texas Democrats insist that they are not sitting idly by. Manuel Medina, state chairman for Tejano Democrats, the Latino wing of the Texas Democratic Party, said Democrats picked four Latina women to run for reliably Democratic seats in the Texas State House in Tuesday’s primary elections. He said he was glad to see more Hispanic involvement in the Republican Party, as well.

“That more doors are open for people to participate in the political system is a good thing. In general, it's positive,” Medina said. “Hispanic women will lead.”

But he cautioned against reading too much into recent voting trends in Texas, pointing out that Democratic primary voters in Hidalgo County still outnumbered Republicans more than two-to-one on Tuesday. Despite Republican gains, the area remains largely Democratic.

Even so, Peña-Garza is optimistic about the Republican Party’s future in South Texas. She credited Trump for Republicans’ growing popularity in the region and noted that a stream of high-profile Republicans has visited Hidalgo County, including Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., who drew 700 people to a local auditorium at 8 a.m. last year.

“It makes us feel included in state and national politics,” Peña-Garza said. “We have been voting Democrat for over 100 years. Has that helped us?”

Jason Villalba, chairman of the nonpartisan Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, told VOA that a variety of issues have boosted Republicans’ fortunes in South Texas, including perceptions that Democrats are critical of law enforcement and want to restrict the fossil fuel industry — two major employment sectors in South Texas.

Villalba also contends that Trump’s “strongman” image played well among some Latino voters.

Villalba noted that until recently, turnout was often low among Hispanic voters.

“We were not able to be impactful,” he said.

Latino political clout growing

That is no longer true, as Latinos have grown in numbers and clout and are increasingly engaged in the political sphere. But they don’t vote as a bloc. Texas Hispanics include 2.5 million immigrants from Mexico, nearly 500,000 from Central America and 170,000 from South America — all of whom came with distinct viewpoints that influence the political leanings of their voting-eligible children.

According to Hector de Leon, a longtime political organizer and blogger in Houston, expectations for a wave of Democratic support amid the Texas population boom were based in part on incorrect assumptions from the national party that nonwhite voters would naturally vote Democrat.

“They just assume every person who is a person of color is going to behave the same electorally, and they got that completely wrong,” de Leon said. “That is continually driving their methods, and that’s why they may be losing more Hispanic voters.”

Those assumptions led to speculation as early as 2016 that perhaps Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee that year, could carry Texas. She lost the state to Trump by nine percentage points.

Looking ahead, a redrawing of Texas’ congressional districts based on the 2020 U.S. Census may give Democrats little to cheer in this year’s midterm elections.

“You don’t see progress being made by Democrats up and down the ballot,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Political Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “The idea that Texas is turning blue (Democratic) has been abandoned by most people, given the results.”

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