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Monday, May 23, 2022

Can Texas become purple? That may depend on Hispanic voters | Carlos Sanchez

Two key congressional races along the Texas-Mexico border underscore what Latino political analysts have been screaming for years: as a voting bloc, Hispanics are not a politically homogeneous group. So Democrats must have a more nuanced strategy to win the bloc if they want to recapture political power in the state, and extend that power to the US Congress.

Both congressional districts, which were up for grabs in last week’s Texas primary, begin at the Rio Grande and snake north-east to San Antonio, among the largest cities in state. One of them, the 28th congressional district, which emanates from Laredo, captured the hopes of the progressive wing of the Democratic party. The other, the 15th district, which begins in McAllen, further south, has Republicans excited about the prospects of turning that district Republican for the first time in its history, with the help of newly redrawn district lines.

The lessons learned from those two races could be instructive at the top of the ticket in November. Democrats are excited about the prospects of Beto O’Rourke, from the border town of El Paso, upsetting Republican governor Greg Abbott, who must demonstrate his ability to capture the Hispanic vote to be credible on the national stage in 2024.

Much of the state’s focus in last Tuesday’s primary was on the potential upset of nine-term Congressman Henry Cuellar by his former intern, Jessica Cisneros, who drew the support of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The two ended up in a runoff election set for 24 May.

Cuellar’s race represents a rematch with Cisneros. Cuellar, a native of Laredo who is arguably the most powerful Texas Democrat in Congress, draws the ire of progressive Democrats who note his anti-abortion stance and his negotiations with Republicans, particularly when it came to funding President Trump’s border wall.

His challenge was made more complicated when the FBI raided his home and office in Laredo in a federal investigation involving business dealings with the country of Azerbaijan. Cuellar has denied any wrongdoing and he has not been charged with anything.

Congressman Henry Cuellar speaks during a press conference about The US-Mexico border in Washington, on 30 July 2021.
Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar draws the ire of progressive Democrats who note his anti-abortion stance and his negotiations with Republicans. Photograph: Lenin Nolly/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

But the timing of the raid placed enormous clouds on his electoral prospects with early voting happening just a few weeks later. He eked out a 767-vote win over Cisneros. Two years earlier, he beat her by 2,690 votes. And while Cisneros, who is also from Laredo, likely benefited enormously from the cloud of corruption over her opponent, where her votes came from is telling.

The bulk of her votes came from Bexar county, the home of San Antonio, hours from the border. Cisneros polled under 40% in border counties. All of this suggests that Cuellar’s more conservative approach to politics better resonated with voters along the border.

Further south of the 28th district is the 15th congressional district, a Democratic mainstay newly redrawn by the state legislature to favor Republicans. The GOP has dominated state politics since 1994, but the border region from south Texas to El Paso in the far west portion of the state has had an insurmountable blue wall.

The 15th had shared in that Democratic tradition and was once represented by John Nance Garner who went on to become Franklin D Roosevelt’s first vice-president. After the 2020 election, in which Trump did exceptionally well in the district, Republicans made the 15th a focal point.

That interest grew when Republican insurance agent and businesswoman Monica De La Cruz came within 3 percentage points of upsetting the Democratic incumbent Vicente Gonzalez in 2020. That same year, Trump came within 2 percentage points of President Biden in the district – the narrowest margin of any seat held by a Democrat in Texas.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall after redistricting, Gonzalez left the 15th district to run in another district. When the legislature completed its once-a-decade redistricting process, the 15th was reshaped to enhance GOP prospects even more. In 2020, before redistricting, Biden carried the 15th by 50.4% to Trump’s 48.5%. Redistricting would have flipped those numbers, delivering a victory to Trump.

Last Tuesday, De La Cruz coasted to the Republican nomination and drew more votes than the two candidates in the Democratic primary combined.

Monica De La Cruz Hernandez coasted to the Republican nomination for Texas’s 15th congressional district and drew more votes than the two candidates in the Democratic primary combined.
Monica De La Cruz Hernandez coasted to the Republican nomination for Texas’s 15th congressional district and drew more votes than the two candidates in the Democratic primary combined. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

While the redistricting process all but guarantees a Republican advantage in the 15th in November, south Texas overall has emerged as a Petri dish for political analysts trying to unlock the mystery to winning over Hispanic voters just as Hispanics are expected to become the majority in Texas by 2025.

Hispanics who live along the border are much more conservative than Texas Democrats overall.

One of the region’s open secrets is the large number of DINOs (Democrat in Name Only) that are in leadership positions. Many officials, locals quietly say, run as Democrats whether they believe in the party platform or not because running as a Republican has generally been the kiss of death. But during the Trump administration, Trump trains or caravans of cars expressing support for the former president became almost commonplace in Hidalgo county, the southern anchor of the 15th district. As one Trump supporter told me, it has become easier to come out of the Republican closet over the past few years with growing numbers of people declaring allegiance to Trump based on economic and border security issues.

Then there’s the Viva Kennedy factor showing that some aspects of politics can have long memories. In 1960, when John F Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for president, his campaign began Hispanic outreach through what were called Viva Kennedy clubs. A key conduit for this outreach was a Corpus Christi doctor named Hector P Garcia, who started the American G.I. Forum, a group that fought for equal rights for Hispanic soldiers returning from the second world war.

Given Kennedy’s close victory, Garcia and other Hispanic leaders felt that the Mexican American vote had been key to his win. They expected to share in the political spoils that many leaders say never came until Lyndon Johnson became president.

Since Biden took office, several Texas Hispanic leaders have spoken privately of having Viva Kennedy sentiments because Hispanics, particularly in Texas, have not fared as well politically as they had hoped with a Democrat in the White House. This feeling is exacerbated by Biden’s missteps on the issue of immigration. While security is important to border Hispanics (the US Border Patrol has long been a ticket to the middle class locally), the rhetoric of immigration can often stray into language that Hispanics find offensive.

The perception that Biden has not handled the issue of immigration well leads to a perception that his administration is allowing the issue of xenophobia to fester unchallenged.

This sets the stage for this year’s midterm election. De La Cruz moved early last year to take on the incumbent again and was bolstered by Republican leadership at the state and national levels. Last fall, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy endorsed De La Cruz. She also secured Trump’s endorsement.

If money is a political barometer, then De La Cruz stands out among the 14 candidates, Democrat and Republican, who filed for the congressional seat. As of 9 February, she raised more than $1.7m, according to the Federal Elections Commission. That’s more than twice the amount raised by the next candidate, Republican Mauro Garza, who raised just over $500,000.

Astoundingly, from a historic perspective in this traditionally Democratic stronghold, the top Democratic fund-raiser banked just over $300,000. And the two Democrats from the 15th that appear to be headed into a May runoff to oppose De La Garza raised a combined $220,000.

Last week, De La Cruz became the Republican nominee for the 15th congressional district by capturing 56.5% of the GOP vote. Her vote total of 16,801 beat the combined total of the two Democrats that are headed into a runoff.

The political strength of Monica De La Cruz, who would become the third Latina and first Republican Latina from Texas in Congress, is worth noting. The heterogeneity of the Hispanic vote cannot be overlooked; the party that better addresses the complexities of this electorate will be the party that has a better chance of controlling the political future of Texas.

Carlos Sanchez is director of public affairs for Hidalgo county, Texas. He was a journalist for 37 years and has worked at the Washington Post and Texas Monthly magazine, as well as eight other newsrooms. He can be reached at [email protected]

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