After 2020, Republicans want to swing more Latino voters in South Texas. It’s not as easy as it looks.

click to enlarge Republican Javier Villalobos (in blue shirt) mingles with supporters. He won a runoff in June to become mayor of the South Texas city of McAllen. - FACEBOOK / JAVIER VILLALOBOS MCALLEN MAYOR
Facebook / Javier Villalobos McAllen Mayor
Republican Javier Villalobos (in blue shirt) mingles with supporters. He won a runoff in June to become mayor of the South Texas city of McAllen.
After former President Donald Trump’s surprisingly strong performance along the U.S.-Mexico border in the last election cycle, Republicans have been working overtime to paint South Texas red.

The Republican National Committee is undertaking a multimillion-dollar outreach effort across the region, which the group is billing as the largest Texas outlay in its history.

To that end, the RNC has opened at least three Hispanic Community Centers in South Texas, including one in Southeast San Antonio, as it pushes to win over Latino votes ahead of the midterms.

What’s more, a GOP Super PAC called Project Red Texas swept into South Texas late last year on a recruiting push that signed up 125 Republican candidates for county offices, the Texas Tribune reports. The organization reportedly paid filing fees for more than half of those new contenders.

Both efforts are a bid to build on Trump’s relative success winning over Latino voters in 2020. While Joe Biden handily won the Latino vote nationwide, and in large Texas metros, Republicans latched onto his disappointing performance in the Rio Grande Valley, a longtime Democratic stronghold.

Trump won 14 of 28 border counties that Hillary Clinton virtually swept four years prior. Adding to the sting for Democrats, Clinton won by an average of 33 points across those counties, while Biden’s victory margin narrowed to just 17, according to a Texas Tribune analysis.

“A good part of this is simply that the Republican Party in Texas is wealthy and using some of that money not just in traditional hotbeds but in places where they haven’t traditionally performed as well so they can narrow the margins,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

That its outreach is now targeting the Rio Grande Valley should come as little surprise given the demographics at play, Jillson added. As the Lone Star State shifts younger and less white, the Republican party risks losing its decades-long dominance of state politics.

Political observers say Trump’s message of rejuvenating the U.S. economy and turning back the cultural clock resonated in rural South Texas just as it did in small towns elsewhere in the U.S. The question is whether his second-term performance with border Latinos will prove to be an anomaly or a sign of a larger shift.

In either case, political experts say concern about jobs was the biggest driver of South Texas’ 2020 shift.

Many South Texas Latinos work in the oil and gas industry, and Republicans painted Biden’s pledge to ban new fracking on federal lands as the first step toward banning the practice, used in the region’s Eagle Ford Shale. That messaging came as the pandemic forced Texas oil companies to slash jobs.

Republicans also argue that Democrats’ message about police accountability turned off South Texas Latinos in communities where many work as Customs and Border Patrol agents. Ahead of the midterms, they’re also ramping up messaging blaming the Biden administration for the current surge in border crossings.

Conflicting signals

Republicans’ new focus on South Texas Latinos comes at the same time as the state party enacted a sweeping new law that makes it harder for Texans to vote — especially people of color. It’s one of many such laws enacted by Republican-controlled states in the wake of Trump’s repeated lies about the last election being riddled with fraud.
If the GOP really thinks it can make big gains with South Texas Latinos, observers ask, why work to minimize their political power?

That same observation isn’t lost on Latino voters, political scientists add. It also comes as those same voters see Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans ramp up anti-immigrant rhetoric and militarize South Texas communities to play up their strength on border security ahead of the midterms.

Aimee Villarreal, who heads the Center for Mexican American Studies at San Antonio’s Our Lady of the Lake University, said she sees Trump’s 2020 performance as a unique situation that will be difficult for Republicans to repeat.

As Texas digs out from the pandemic’s economic hardships, oil and gas jobs are coming back, she said. Voters along the border are now less likely to look favorably on a party that they see demonizing immigrants and viewing Latinos as second-class citizens.

“The Republican Party is completely misguided, and they’ve completely overplayed their hand,” Villarreal said.

Local outreach

Despite the apparent contradictions at the heart of its strategy, the GOP’s community-based outreach makes sense to some political observers — even some from the opposite side of the aisle.

GOP operatives are billing the RNC’s new community centers as gathering spaces rather than traditional political offices. They’re places where families can come together to discuss local issues, hold worship services or drop off the kids for a bilingual movie night.

San Antonio’s center, nestled into a nondescript strip mall containing an appliance repair shop and a convenience store, includes a big-screen TV and a children’s table equipped with crayons. A table by the door is piled with flyers for local candidates and photos of GOP Latino lawmakers hang along one wall.

“In San Antonio, we did a couple of cryptocurrency trainings, a couple trainings on how to start a business,” RNC Texas spokeswoman Macarena Martinez said. “We’ve also had a food drive where we collected canned goods and gave them to an organization in need.”

Veteran Democratic political consultant Laura Barberena said the new centers seem modeled more after churches than typical party offices: they bring people together as a community before slipping in a sermon.

“They have the potential to talk to Hispanic voters about the issue they actually want to talk about,” she said. “What you’re doing is creating relationships with those voters.”
The centers could even help further the party’s push to find strong candidates for local races, Barberena noted. That kind of grassroots growth will be essential if the party wants to build on Project Red Texas’ recent recruiting efforts.

Likely feeding Republicans’ new interest in local races, Republican Javier Villalobos narrowly won McAllen’s mayoral race in a June runoff. While that city position is officially nonpartisan, it was lost on no one that Villalobos formerly chaired the Hidalgo County Republican Party.

For the GOP to be successful in South Texas, its efforts must be sustained and long-term, which will come with a considerable price tag.

Barberena noted that Republicans’ outreach to Hispanic voters in Texas is nothing new. Former Gov. George W. Bush made inroads on that front, only for the party to slide back after his successor, Rick Perry, appeared to write off South Texas Latinos.

Democratic response

Also key to understanding how the GOP performs in South Texas is how aggressively Abbott’s likely challenger in the general election, former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke, hits in the region. While O’Rourke is a dogged campaigner, he doesn’t have the resources to be everywhere at once.

Indeed, Democrats’ decision not to campaign door to door while COVID-19 was raging may have contributed to Trump’s improved showing with Latinos on the border, political experts note.

While many pundits predict the 2022 midterms will be punishing for Democrats nationwide, party officials said they’re not taking South Texas for granted. The Texas Democratic Party has hired a regional political manager focused on South Texas, and it’s boosted spending on voter registration.

What’s more, progressive-leaning voter mobilization groups such as San Antonio-based MOVE Texas have expanded efforts in South Texas. The group said it plans to register 50,000 Texas voters between the ages of 18 and 30 ahead of the midterms.

SMU’s Jillson said South Texas is likely to lean Democrat for some time. Just the same, it would be foolish for the party to ignore Republicans’ 2020 showing — and its current outreach plan. If Democrats wants to hold off further red gains among South Texas Latinos, they’ll need to spend big, pound the ground and search for messages that resonate.

“Democrats need to hear the sirens,” Jillson said. “They need to know that something they’re doing in South Texas isn’t working as well as it should.”

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