HARLINGEN, Texas — Just weeks before Election Day in Texas, big money, new signs of changing voters, and bold predictions of an upset that will turn heads across America
But this time it comes from the Republicans.
“We’re going to turn the Rio Grande Valley red,” said Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who sparked a rally in the Texas border town of Harlingen.
As Democrats embark on another October blitz in pursuit of flipping America’s biggest red state, Republicans are taking their own turn: making a play for the predominantly Hispanic southern border on Nov. 8 after years of writing off the region that is overwhelming controlled by Democrats.
The task – like Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s underdog campaign to unseat Abbott – is an uphill climb. But it’s another way Republicans have a lot at stake on the Texas border, given that they’re already focusing the final push of the 2022 midterms on portraying the 1,200-mile border as fraught with escalating danger and disorder as record numbers of migrants arrive in from Mexico.
Border Democrats say dramatic moves to bus and fly migrants across the country will backfire with voters, but also acknowledge they can no longer walk into office.
Still, the rare sight of contested races on the Texas border has widened fissures in a key Democratic stronghold two years after former President Donald Trump’s significant gains with Hispanic voters in the 2020 election left both parties confused in unexpected ways.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had so many competitive races where Democrats are saying, ‘What are we going to do?'” said Republican Carlos Cascos, a former border Democrat who switched parties and later served as Abbott’s first secretary. by the state.
He doesn’t see Republicans sweeping races in the Rio Grande Valley, home to about 1.5 million people. But, he says, “I think this area has been taken for granted. In the valley, two things are born: a Catholic and a Democrat. Things change.”
Democrats still have advantages in South Texas — decades of power, a culture of residents who vote Democratic, and more moderate candidates who are less vulnerable to GOP attacks on the left and more critical of President Joe Biden when his approval ratings remains low and inflation remains high.
But Republican Rep. Maya Flores’ victory in a special election this year, becoming the first Texas Latina in the U.S. House, reflected changing terrain. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a South Texas Democrat, redistricted into more favorable territory and hopes to unseat her for a full term in November.
Democrats have rejected dramatic moves by Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, two potential 2024 presidential candidates, to send migrants to places like Washington, New York and Martha’s Vineyard. But Republicans counter that more liberal voters in big cities far from the border are ignoring problems that affect mostly working-class South Texans.
Republican Monica de la Cruz, running for Texas’ most competitive House seat that stretches from east of San Antonio to border communities including McAllen, blamed “an elite class that just doesn’t get it because illegal immigration has virtually no impact on their life.”
“Wall Street bankers don’t have to worry about a poor Central American migrant undercutting their wages,” de la Cruz told reporters recently.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is set to campaign with Flores and de la Cruz on the border Monday — an unusual display of national GOP political power for South Texas.
These efforts to control the political narrative coincide with the Republican Party opening 38 minority outreach community centers around the country, including in McAllen and another border city, Laredo, as well as in heavily Hispanic Houston and San Antonio.
Some offer services such as guidance for US citizen classes and tax advice. They have also hosted movie nights, potluck dinners and business roundtables, as well as courses on topics such as cryptocurrency. Some have been open for more than a year.
The GOP says it has spent millions on Hispanic outreach across the country, including more than 30 ad buys in Spanish-language media that include digital, television, radio and print. It also holds a record 32 Hispanic Republican nominees on House ballots around the country, though many are underdogs.
Democrats, for their part, opened a national field office in McAllen in April and have three staffers working on the area’s congressional races, the party’s first investment in recent memory.
Richard Gonzales, chairman of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party, which includes McAllen, said party officials are holding weekly Zoom calls with O’Rourke’s campaign to coordinate efforts that have focused on increasing voter turnout, particularly among inactive voters . He said Trump’s and Republican gains in 2020 were real but “very candidate-specific” and unlikely to “translate to future races.”
O’Rourke, who previously ran unsuccessfully for the Senate and president, also heads a nonprofit organization called Powered By People. In 2020, he organized a phone bank where volunteers contacted voters in Webb County—which includes Laredo, where less than 40% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2018 Senate race—hoping to increase turnout for Biden.
The group registered thousands of Webb County voters and eventually saw turnout rise to 50% of eligible voters in the 2020 election. But Trump greatly increased his support in Webb County, taking nearly 26,000 votes, about double his overall total in 2016 – and garnered around 38% overall support there, compared to around 23% in 2016.
“People want to say the Democrats are done down here, that the Republicans are taking over. That’s not true,” Gonzales said. “What this has done is it’s woken up the Democrats down here and made us realize, ‘Hey, we can’t take this for granted anymore.'”