Fearing Lockdowns South Texas Hispanics Defected to Trump En Masse
Surprise, surprise, elitist lockdown class war doesn't play well with the working class
For decades, no Democratic presidential candidate had won Starr County with less than a 48-point margin. Local lore is that the last Republican who came close to winning a partisan race was a sheriff’s candidate gunned down in a saloon in 1907.
Yet last week, 8,224 Starr County residents voted for President Trump in a red wave that moved the South Texas county from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s 60-point margin in 2016 to a 5-point win for Joe Biden, the largest swing to Mr. Trump of any county in the U.S. In nearby Zapata County, Mrs. Clinton won by 33 points in 2016. This year, Mr. Trump took it by 6 points.
Though Mr. Biden prevailed, the falloff of support in a historically loyal but socially conservative region signals trouble for a Democratic Party seeking to hold together a broad voter constituency. Many counties in this stretch of South Texas are more than 90% Hispanic and traditionally the state’s bluest—unlike Florida, where there are many more Republican-leaning Latinos. It is a place that Democrats counted on, and, according to residents here, didn’t understand enough to see what was coming.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party and resident of the Rio Grande Valley, said the group was trying to figure out exactly what happened. What seems likely, he said, was that Democrats didn’t counter Republican messaging on three issues important to Latino voters: pandemic shutdowns, oil jobs and abortion.
Aside from Mexican heritage and Spanish surnames, much of the Rio Grande Valley has more demographic similarities with some Trump strongholds in white rural communities than the nation’s urban areas. Many South Texans live in communities with lower-income and lower-education rates. In Starr County, just over half of its 65,600 residents graduated high school, and the unemployment rate of 18.5% is the highest in Texas. The region is ethnically homogenous, rural in parts, deeply religious, intensely patriotic, socially conservative and hurting economically.
“There’s a lot of parallels between a community that’s 96% Hispanic and a community that’s 96% white,” said Freddy Guerra, a former mayor of nearby Roma. “Racism is not something that people deal with in Starr County because everybody’s brown. Climate change isn’t something they feel. They prefer bread on the table.”
Weeks before Election Day, the Lazo family added a line of pocket knives with the face of President Trump to the display case of their mattress store a half-mile north of the U.S.-Mexico border. All of them cast votes for Mr. Trump. On the rest of the ballot, they supported Democrats.
Like other small-business owners, the Lazos were hit hard by the Covid-19 recession. Elizabeth Lazo said she supported Mr. Trump because she believed he would better help small businesses like their family owned mattress and clothing stores, in addition to keeping their customers afloat. They worried Mr. Biden would hurt the oil industry.
“For our community, all the good work is in the oil lines,” Mrs. Lazo, who doesn’t speak English, said in Spanish. “There are no factories here. No work. The biggest thing is Walmart. ” Workers who travel to oil fields around the state make $30 to $40 an hour, high pay in a county where the average per capita annual income is just over $14,000.
This year’s Black Lives Matter protests and calls to reduce police funding didn’t resonate for many. Law enforcement provides some of the highest-paying local jobs, including police and sheriff’s departments, Border Patrol and other federal and state agencies.
Polling before the election by Latino Decisions, a national political opinion research firm, showed that the handling of Covid-19 was the most important political issue to Latinos across all demographics, and poll respondents believed Mr. Trump had bungled it. Yet, Mr. Trump remained popular in Starr and neighboring counties, which have seen among the country’s highest death rates from the virus. “We’re going to have to do some deep-dive there, but there are some mysteries, for sure,” said Latino Decisions co-founder Gary Segura .
Some voters said they had adored President Obama but didn’t know much about Mr. Biden. For better or worse, these voters said, they felt they knew Mr. Trump. Others said they appreciated getting a pandemic stimulus check bearing Mr. Trump’s signature, which showed he cared about them.
The president’s border wall expansion is deeply unpopular in the region, but some local Trump supporters said it didn’t matter as much as other issues because he had only small success adding sections in South Texas. Mrs. Lazo shrugged off Mr. Trump’s often-derogatory comments about Mexicans and his hard-line border policies. “I’m Hispanic,” she said, “but I’m American.”
At an adult day care in downtown Rio Grande City, the elderly and disabled clients chanted “Biden!” on a recent afternoon as they played games of lotería, similar to bingo, and waited for the race to be called. Many said they had voted Democrat all their lives. The 31-year-old events coordinator running the game, Andrew Balderas, had voted for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Balderas said his vote for the president was based on economics. Under President Obama, he said, gas prices “were like $4 and now it’s like $2.”
Across town, outside a tan house where a dozen Chihuahuas ran about, Pat Saenz, 57, said he had voted Democratic all his life, just like three generations of his family before him. “It went down the line, like being Catholic,” his father, Patricio Saenz, 82, said. But the younger Mr. Saenz said he liked that Mr. Trump was a businessman and spoke up for Christianity. So, in 2016, he cast his first vote for a Republican.
After Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Saenz started Facebook pages spreading pro-Trump messaging to his friends. He helped organize a Rio Grande Valley “Trump Train” of vehicles, and papered a downtown boulevard in Trump signs. He recruited family members. His elderly parents said they were persuaded to vote for Mr. Trump when Mr. Saenz showed them videos of social justice protests in northern cities turning violent.
His wife, Elia Saenz, has long worked as a politiquera, the local term for campaign workers who drive voters to the polls on behalf of local candidates. These drivers hold sway over many Rio Grande Valley residents, giving guidance on whom to support. Mrs. Saenz said she had never paid much attention to national politics. She voted for Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, but wasn’t familiar at all with Mr. Biden. She decided for vote for Mr. Trump, she said, after her husband explained that the president opposed abortion and Mr. Biden didn’t.
During three weeks of early voting in Texas, Mrs. Saenz drove some 350 people to the polls on behalf of school board candidates. While she had them in her car, she also talked about supporting Mr. Trump. Mr. Saenz knows at least two other Trump-supporting local politiqueras as well, he said, both wives of oil workers.
Other locals said they saw support for the Republican Party growing in the past year. Mr. Guerra, the former Roma mayor, started to see pro-Trump posts on his Facebook feed. The most fierce, he said, were from the wives and girlfriends of Border Patrol agents. After the stimulus checks, he started to see memes of Latinos holding out their hands to “Papa Trump” for money. “If we speak in the language of memes,” he said, “there were a lot of Trump as this fatherly figure who was going to help you.”
One post that went viral in his Facebook circle, Mr. Guerra said, claimed that higher taxes on wealthy Americans would drive up grocery prices because the rich would raise the costs of food.
Eric Seale, 31, a tattooed oil field welder, said he supported Mr. Trump because the president strongly backed gun ownership rights. Cornelio Garza, 62, a cowboy boot-wearing concert promoter who had proudly supported Mr. Obama, said Mr. Trump was a friend to Latinos for pointing the country in the right direction. He said he worried Kamala Harris wasn’t suited to be president if anything were to happen to Mr. Biden.
Mr. Garza and Pat Saenz argue over that with Elia Saenz, who wants to see a woman as president. They agreed on one thing: that ballot counters in the last states to be called were trying to steal the election from Mr. Trump. The president has made that claim but hasn’t presented evidence of widespread fraud.
Local Republicans now see a chance to carry the momentum into local races. “I’ve had a lot of folks contact me and say we need to reorganize for 2022 and have some local candidates on the ticket,” said Starr County Republican Chairman Ross Barrera . “We haven’t had a Republican on the ballot since 1906.”
Whether the shift to the right in South Texas will last isn’t at all clear. But it served as a wake-up call to Democrats, party officials said. Amanda Salas, a local Democratic organizer, bemoaned the lack of outreach and resources from state and national Democratic groups, which she said wrote off the region: “What did we expect was going to happen?”
Source: The Wall Street Journal