Elections 2022Betting on the Border: Texas Republicans Zero in on South Texas

After the 2020 swing in South Texas, Republicans are bullish on their ability to cement further gains in the Hispanic-heavy region.
November 23, 2021
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“Something is happening in South Texas,” state Rep. Ryan Guillen (R-Rio Grande City) said in Floresville last week announcing his party switch. Guillen’s move made national headlines, touted as emblematic of the GOP gaining a foothold in a region it has long lacked one.

Just a couple of days after Guillen’s announcement, state Rep. John Lujan (R-San Antonio) was sworn in to represent House District (HD) 118 after he won the special election, flipping the seat from Democratic to Republican controlled.

Republicans poured in resources to flip the seat and succeeded. These two victories, the GOP insists, are emblematic of a broader shift in the state’s southernmost, Hispanic-heavy region.

“Many of us are waking up to the fact that the values in Washington, D.C. are not our values in South Texas,” Guillen said in his Monday remarks. The values fault line, he emphasized, falls on issues such as public safety and energy policy. But, given its proximity to the nation’s southern boundary, the most accentuated issue might just be the border crisis caused by a steady flow of illegal immigration.

A poll conducted in October by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation (THPF) analyzed Hispanic voters’ views of various border policies, illustrating marked support from South Texas and rural Hispanics for GOP-backed responses.

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Tasking law enforcement with arresting illegal border crossers and deploying the National Guard and the Department of Public Safety are each overwhelmingly supported by South Texas Hispanics.

The one issue that features a more divided response was the construction of the southern border wall, on which South Texas Hispanics support 44 percent to 43 percent opposed.

“These poll numbers show that Texas Hispanics hold a diversity of viewpoints on border-related issues and help explain why Republicans did relatively well with key Hispanic groups in the 2020 election,” said THPF Chairman and former state representative Jason Villalba.

South Texas Hispanics also broadly oppose increasing the number of refugees and immigrants the country allows in. And while they are dead even in their assessment of Abbott’s border response, they disapprove of Biden’s by a net negative 12 percent.

Earlier this year, McAllen voters elected a Republican mayor, nominally a nonpartisan position, for the first time in many years. Javier Villalobos, a former Hidalgo County GOP chair and then county commissioner, won that race by a slim 206 votes.

Villalobos’ campaign focused substantially on fiscal issues during the race. The new McAllen mayor wasn’t always a Republican, making the switch Guillen did back in 2006. Villalobos’ switch was spurred on more economical issues, and he said, “I don’t I don’t do too much with social issues, which are often used to divide people to raise money for political purposes.”

That’s a starkly different position than many state Republicans. This year, the GOP-controlled legislature passed the Texas Heartbeat Act, constitutional carry, and an election reform bill — all of which were more conservative features than the 2019 session.

But this trend has been long developing in South Texas, Villalobos said. “The Hispanic community has always been more conservative but has always been more Democratic probably because of their family.”

“On immigration, people think the Hispanic community is all for it but no, a lot of Hispanics don’t like what’s going on right now.”

Villalobos said that finally much of the country is waking up to the fact that the problems affecting the border right now is not just a South Texas issue — it affects the entire nation. He added that he’s glad the “Remain in Mexico” policy was reimplemented after the Biden administration took the reins from its predecessor and initially rescinded it.

McAllen was affected immediately by that initial move by President Joe Biden. The city had to operate a tent facility to house the 1,000 to 1,800 illegal immigrants crossing their border area every day.

Villalobos said that at first the city was not receiving any financial help on the issue but is now.

The recognition of this shift in South Texas public opinion can be seen in newly minted gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke’s criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the border crisis. He said that the White House “could be doing a better job at the border,” adding that establishing “predictability, order, and the rule of law” is paramount. O’Rourke also said illegal immigrants with non-credible asylum claims should be deported.

The winds of conventional Democratic messaging wisdom have shifted, if only on this one issue. And that can be attributed, at least in part, to the shift among South Texas Hispanics — the ones whose communities are most affected by the border problems.

During the 2020 presidential election, despite Donald Trump losing the race, he and the GOP made substantial gains in South Texas. Nine of the 10 counties across the U.S. with the biggest swing from blue to red are in South Texas. The biggest swing was Starr County, Guillen’s home county, featuring a plus 55 percent gain for the GOP.

While Trump didn’t win the county, he only lost it by less than 5 percent. No Republican presidential candidate has won Starr since President Benjamin Harrison did in 1892.

That said, Democrats still control most of South Texas’ political offices. There exists an opportunity for the GOP to plant its roots in the area and compete with its political opposite that for over a century has maintained a vice grip-like hold on the region.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) recognizes this and is investing heavily in South Texas — taking a different approach than just typical campaign offices. Alex Kuehler, the RNC’s Southwest communications director, told The Texan the organization has opened three community centers in South Texas. Two are in the Rio Grande Valley, one in Laredo and one in McAllen, and another is just south of San Antonio.

In addition to some more traditional campaign operations like voter registration and “get out the vote” efforts, these community centers will host movie nights, potluck dinners, and other more communal functions aimed at reaching the region’s largely Hispanic voters in a different way.

“[I]t’s really an investment to try to reach out to those communities, listen to them and listen to their thoughts as to why they’re starting to come to the GOP, as well as teach them more about the Republican Party in the conservative movement,” Kuehler said.

That said, the traditional campaign functions carry on there as well. According to Kuehler, the RNC’s voter contact figures most recently totaled 108,000 doors knocked, 121,000 phone calls made, and 4,300 volunteers recruited. The organization has also held 415 “Republican Leadership Initiative” trainings.

Kuehler added that the pitch made by the RNC to this new swathe of persuadable voters is twofold.

“First, it’s that our values are your values — faith, family, prosperity, opportunity, and freedom. Second, it’s a focus on the problems caused by Democratic policies right now such as inflation driving up the cost of everything; the open southern border and public safety issues coming from that; and all these different things that are coming out of the Biden administration that are really pushing [these voters] to our party.”

This push is part of a broader effort by the RNC to appeal to minority voters. They’ve also opened a community center in Dallas to reach the North Texas city’s Indian and Vietnamese populations as well as one in Atlanta to reach black voters.

“As Democrats go even further to the left, I feel like these community centers are going to be a good balance to that for us,” he concluded.

Villalobos says it’s important for Republicans to “engage everybody” in South Texas — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. He also believes the key is focusing on kitchen table issues and the inflation affecting pocketbooks. It also contains the employment issues plaguing businesses across the country, including Villalobos’.

“We are seeing so many people that don’t have the work ethic, that drive to work or to succeed. It just doesn’t seem to be there,” he said, pointing to the increased government-funded unemployment aid that has been provided since the beginning of the pandemic. Those benefits are starting to return to their pre-pandemic statuses, but the work force unavailability has persisted.

South Texas is very much up for grabs in a way it hasn’t been in decades. Such a potential realignment could be key for the electoral prospects of both parties in this state for years to come.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.