The GOP has zeroed in on three House seats in the region, which was a surprise gain last November. This is the key target for next year's midterm elections. These include the 15th congressional District, which has not sent a Republican to Washington since 1903 but was where a new Republican came within three points for winning in 2020.
Republican leaders believe that the party is in the midst of a political redefinition among Hispanic voters living along the southern border, such as this one. The party's vulnerability among voters in the suburbs may be offset by gains among Latinos. These shifts will be determined by the elections next year, which will decide if they are lasting or a limited response to Trump's turbulent politics. Democrats hope.
However, Congress has a mere six-seat majority in Congress. Democrats in Texas feel the party must take this threat seriously.
Gilberto Hinojosa (chair of the Texas Democratic Party) stated, "I don’t think there’s any doubt that we should be concerned about it"
The 15th district is Republicans' number one target in the region. It stretches from the border's Hidalgo county, which is more that 90% Hispanic to the eastern suburbs San Antonio. The voters of this area have never sent a Republican candidate to Washington. This is why the national party leaders were stunned that Monica De La Cruz Hernandez (a small-business owner) came within 10,000 votes from beating Rep. Vicente Gonzalez.
De La Cruz-Hernandez, who was sitting at her Alamo office desk earlier this month in cowboy boots and a campaign t-shirt, credited her performance for former President Donald Trump. His "colorful personality" had sparked a new interest in national politics, which she said has changed many Texans' views about politics.
"When people started paying attention to what was going on on the national stage they noticed, I believe that the lights began to go on for them where they saw, you're right? She stated that her conservative values are no longer in alignment with the Democrat Party. "The bottom line is that Hispanic values support God, life and country. We are conservatives down there."
She stated that border security is the "number one problem from the north to the south of the district", as the number of crossings has soared. Republicans have been focused on this issue since Trump's post-presidential trip to the border attracted hundreds of supporters.
While Democratic state legislators have been focused on blocking an sweeping overhaul bill in the election, they have been camped outside Washington, though some Democrats from the Rio Grande Valley didn't join them.
The Pew Research Center estimated that 38% of Hispanic voters voted for Trump in 2020. This is compared to 28% in 2016. Trump lost Hidalgo Country 17 points in 2020. However, his support for Trump more than doubled from 2016 when he lost by 40 points and earned just 28% of all the votes. He also flipped a few other districts nearby, including Zapata County which Democrat Hillary Clinton won 66%-33% and Kenedy which Clinton carried 53%-45%.
Republicans also point out other data points that support their optimism, beyond these gains. Javier Villalobos was elected mayor in McAllen in June, becoming the first Republican to be elected to this office in over a decade. Redistricting in Texas, which is managed by the Republicans of the State, could result in districts that favor GOP candidates, as lines are redrawn so that the state gains two Congressional seats.
Villalobos was there to support Trump at his border briefing. He was called a "superstar", and other officials at that event hailed him as a "superstar".
Hispanics vote traditionally Democrat, even though they are conservative historically. He said that even older people are slowly changing. "And that's beautiful." It's good to have competition.
However, it is not clear if the 2020 gains made by Republicans will be carried over to 2022 when Trump isn’t on the ballot. Democrats claim their poor performance last year is a temporary result and point to unusual circumstances, such as the decision of the party to forgo in-person campaigns during the pandemic. They also noted that the race for McAllen mayor was not partisan and that turnout was below 10,000 votes.
Gonzalez, the Democratic incumbent for the 15th District, insists that he is not affected by De La Cruz-Hernandez's strong showing. Gonzalez described last year's results in the 15th district as an "anomaly" caused by a pandemic which decimated the area, killing thousands, including his friends, and dissuading many elderly voters from voting.
He cited concrete achievements made by the Biden administration, which he plans to campaign on, such as an economic recovery and mass vaccinations, as well relief dollars that kept small businesses open.
He stated, "Everyone is running on results and what we've accomplished and we will continue to run on what we have done for the people."
Hinojosa was, however, more cautious. He admitted that the party was caught unawares by Trump's surge in first-time voters. The races were not expected to be competitive so little effort and money was spent on the contests. There was no canvassing or phone banking, nor get-out-the vote drives.
Trump's message resonated with voters in Rio Grande Valley, particularly where poverty rates are high, and the economy is still hampered by a shuttered south border. He mentioned concerns about the future oil and gas industry, border security, and calls by Democrats to "defund" the police, which "freaked it out" many voters with ties to law enforcement.
He said that "it was almost a perfect storm" for Republicans down there, and noted that the party didn't have the resources to "strengthen support down here" due to the fact that the race wasn't considered competitive.
He said that he had already met with leaders in south Texas to prepare for next year's elections. They formed coalitions along the border and hired a full-time organizer.
He stated that "We are going to spend a hell of a lot more money than we ever did before in order to ensure that what Republicans claim will happen doesn't happen." "We won't take any chance."
Interviews with voters suggest that there are still many things to do.
42-year-old Eryc Palomares lives in McAllen, works in a medical lab, and said that he was delighted to see other people like him who have abandoned their loyalty to the Democratic Party.
It's as if they have brainwashed you: Vote Democrat. Palomares said that this is all she had to say. She now votes Republican.
Manuel Pescador Jr. (54), a McAllen-based occupational safety consultant and activist, said, "People are awakening."
Pescador Jr. stated that he changed parties seven years ago and rejected what he considered a culture of "handouts, false promises." He now rails against illegal immigrants who come to the U.S. illegally.
They come here, refuse to assimilate, and they want to do everything possible, in every way possible. He said that they are "depleters" because of this. "This is why Hispanics can vote Republican because we know who's coming."
Joe Guerra is an independent living in McAllen. He didn't vote last year but stated that he was not surprised by the GOP’s gains.
"For years, the Republican Party was a small presence in this area. He said that the conservative spirit had always been there. Trump was able to bring them out of their shells. They're who they've been all along.