The Latino Shift Toward Trump in South Texas: Anomaly or Realignment?

President Donald Trump speaks during a tour of the Double Eagle Energy Oil Rig in Midland, Texas, July 29, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

In Texas, where the Hispanic population is predicted to outnumber white residents as soon as 2022, Democrats have hoped that changing demographics will work in their favor.

The validity of this theory was called into question on Election Day, as President Trump grew his support in South Texas’s most Hispanic communities. In Zapata County, where 93 percent of residents are Hispanic, Trump won by six points just four years after Hillary Clinton swept the county by 33 points.

Though Joe Biden still received a majority of votes, he received a much lower share there than Clinton enjoyed in 2016. In Starr County, Biden won by five points compared to Clinton’s 60. No Democratic presidential candidate had won Starr County with less than a 48-point margin for decades.

Similarly, in Hidalgo County, Biden won by 17, while Clinton had been up by 40 percentage points.

Representative Henry Cuellar, a moderate Democrat who has represented Texas’ 28th congressional district — which includes parts of all three counties — since 2005, said Democrats have mistakenly assumed that all Latino voters have similar interests and concerns.

“What we have to understand is that the Hispanic vote is not monolithic,” Cuellar said in a recent interview with National Review. “So, the message that Democrats were pitching nationally, it was not going to resonate. Hispanics in South Texas or in South Florida and other areas, we might have certain similarities but then you have to fine-tune the messaging for the people from Venezuela or people from Cuba in South Florida, which is very different from the Hispanics in South Texas.”

In Texas, Latinos represent roughly 30 percent of eligible voters and more than 40 percent of the population. More than 203,000 Latinos come of voting age in the state each year.

While Biden earned more than three-quarters of votes in precincts with high Latino concentrations in Dallas, Tarrant, Travis, and El Paso counties, according to UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, large swaths of the Rio Grande Valley are more demographically similar to areas where Trump enjoyed a great amount of support than to urban areas.

Cuellar said Democrats often focus all attention on the urban areas, forgetting about the state’s rural communities.

“You cannot forget about the rural areas and then you have to be able to talk to those folks: understand that the Second Amendment is important, understand that agriculture is very important,” he said. “Understand that in rural areas, the oil and gas industry are good-paying jobs, understand that in small communities in rural Texas that law enforcement are some of the better-paid jobs, whether it’s Border Patrol, police or sheriffs.”

Many communities in the region struggle with lower-income and lower-education rates. In Starr County, where just over half of 65,600 residents have high-school diplomas. At 18.5 percent, its unemployment rate is the highest in the state.

Trump, who in 2016 received 1.9 million votes from small-town and rural Texas, was able to capture an additional 400,000 votes in those areas this election, for a total of 2.3 million, according to estimates by Progress Texas.

Comments about defunding the police and opposing fracking probably didn’t play well in an an area where many residents work in law enforcement and the oil and gas industry.

In a call last week, House Democrats pointed fingers, trading blame for the party having lost a number of House seats, during which Representative Abigail Spanberger (D., Va.) said, “No one should say ‘defund the police’ ever again” or the party would get “torn apart” in 2022.

Progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York pushed back the next day, saying in a tweet that “the whole ‘progressivism is bad’ argument just doesn’t have any compelling evidence that I’ve seen.”

“When it comes to ‘Defund’ & ‘Socialism’ attacks, people need to realize these are racial resentment attacks,” she said. “You’re not gonna make that go away. You can make it less effective.”

When Cuellar spoke to National Review, he said he had just come from a meeting with a police chief and officers from a small community who expressed concern that they would be defunded by the Democrats. Cuellar said this messaging by the party’s progressives have hurt Democrats, though he, a moderate, has worked to secure funding for law enforcement in the area through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Operation Stonegarden Grant Program.

“I think the Republicans did a better job and understand that there is a base culture among Hispanics, but then they were able to focus their messaging in different parts of the country,” Cuellar said.

Texas GOP chairman Allen West told National Review Trump’s success in the region is due in large part to the party having engaged communities to show that the party shares their principles and values.

“When you look at the Hispanic community here in the United States of America, it is a conservative community,” he said. “They believe strongly in their faith heritage. They are very strong when it comes to family and that sense of the traditional nuclear family.”

“I think that they’re also a community that does not want to be a victim,” he said. “They don’t want to be on your handouts, they want to work hard.”

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who serves as the conservative think tank’s leading voice on identity politics, echoed this sentiment.

“These people who voted, they don’t feel like victims,” he said. “They feel American, they reject this identity politics notion. They reject the idea that they are victims. They reject the idea this is a bad country.”

He added that the idea of a “Latino vote” shows “to what degree the Left has colonized our minds.”

“We have accepted the concepts and language of the left in the face of all evidence. We keep talking about the Latino vote no, we should not be speaking of a Latino vote,” he said, explaining that such grouping serves only to divide Americans.

Gonzalez said ahead of the election it had become clear that “something cultural was happening” in the Rio Grande Valley.

“But also something that is very much very practical: They really liked the economic growth that Trump was proposing, really liked the deregulation, the low taxes,” he said.

Still, other races in the area remained blue. Cuellar was handily reelected against Republican challenger Sandra Whitten.

“I think what you see here is a Trump effect,” Cuellar said. “If it was a realignment I think you would have seen Republicans win left and right and that didn’t happen.”

Matt Barreto, a professor of political science and Chicano studies at the University of California Los Angeles and the co-founder of the research and polling firm Latino Decisions, was profoundly uninterested in considering the shifting dynamics, telling National Review it was an “extremely dumb idea for a story” when asked for his insight.

“Only 15 percent of Latino voters in Texas are in the South Texas RGV. 85 percent are elsewhere,” Barreto, who has conducted polling for both the Biden and Clinton campaigns, said in an email.

However, Clyde Barrow, chair of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Department of Political Science, thinks the vote could be evidence of a realignment decades in the making.

“I would suggest one of the things that’s happening here is what happened in the rest of Texas in the 1980s, and that is that these border Democrats are in many ways the last of the old southern Democrats — they’ve continued to vote Democratic out of habit and historical legacy — but they’re conservative Democrats,” Barrow said.

Other conservative Democrats followed President Ronald Reagan into the Republican Party, but that shift never translated to the Rio Grande Valley, which has historically remained fairly isolated from the rest of the state, he said.

“These are Democrats who are culturally conservative and more aligned with the Republican Party when it comes to issues like abortion, LGBT rights, same-sex marriage and border security,” he said, adding that Democrats in the area tend to oppose the border wall but support border security in other forms.

“They’re aligned with the Republican Party there but I think there’s ways in which cultural conservatism and economic interests have been realigned and synchronized with each other under Donald Trump,” he said.

Trump was able to win favor in the area in expanding the “border industrial complex.” In Zapata County, the Border Patrol is the single-largest employer, which then powers a number of other industries, including real estate, civilian support personnel and other businesses heavily dependent upon the presence of the Border Patrol.

“I think what you will see is conservatives who call themselves Democrats starting to realign themselves and identify themselves as as Republicans,” he said, though it may be difficult to track as Texas does not require voters to register as a member of a political party.

“I think just the main takeaway here is when it comes to the Rio Grande Valley, people cannot equate the word ‘Democrat’ with ‘liberal,” Barrow said. “Those are not equivalent in the Rio Grande Valley.”

In 2017, FiveThirtyEight found that Cuellar had voted in line with President Trump’s positions 75 percent of the time, more than any other Democrat. That figure has since dropped to only 41.3 percent.

For Republicans’ part, West says they’ll focus on bringing the momentum they have created and strengthening relationships they’ve built to promote more conservative candidates in the Rio Grande Valley in municipal elections.

“We engaged and we are going to maintain that engagement and we’re not going to go backwards,” he said.

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