McALLEN — When Lily Benitez pulled into her driveway in the Donesta neighborhood here Saturday morning, she was surprised to see Greg Abbott coming toward her. It wasn’t just because he’s the attorney general of Texas and a candidate for governor.
It was also because he’s a Republican, and this patch of borderland happens to be the most reliably Democratic part of the state.
“I’m a Democrat,” Benitez said somewhat sheepishly to the reporters following Abbott around as he visited several neighborhoods. “I never thought I would see him here, so I will have to look into it.”
Abbott is betting that enough voters like Benitez, who works at a local bank, will make a rare swing over to the Republican Party this year and help him break the Democrats’ near lock on deep South Texas.
“I think we have a legitimate shot at either winning the Rio Grande Valley" or coming close, Abbott told reporters Saturday after a rally here. “There has never been this level of outreach and expenditure by a Republican.”
Winning a large piece of the South Texas Hispanic vote would be a major coup for Abbott — and a sign that GOP leaders are preparing for the future. The Latino population is exploding in Texas, and Republicans could lose their grip on statewide office if their performance with Hispanic voters doesn't improve.
It won’t be easy. In Hidalgo County, no Republican has won a countywide elected post in the modern era. And statewide, often harsh statements on immigration and border security from Texas Republicans have hurt GOP efforts to connect with Hispanic voters.
But Abbott has been running a lot of Spanish-language and bilingual TV ads, including ones featuring his Hispanic mother-in-law, and he’s made more than a dozen trips to the region. He was back in the Valley this weekend, when he debated his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, and held several events designed to pump up his supporters.
Abbott also showcased the endorsement of several local mayors, including McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, Harlingen Mayor Christopher Boswell, Mission Mayor Beto Salinas and Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal.
Democrats were quick to point out that Davis has an even longer list of local endorsers, and they said Abbott’s campaign showed it had little homegrown support when it paid transportation costs and lodging for out-of-town volunteers who came to knock on doors for him this weekend.
"Greg Abbott has insulted the Rio Grande Valley so much he was actually forced to bus in supporters from other parts of the state," Davis spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña said. "Greg Abbott is working against the people of the Rio Grande Valley."
Abbott campaign aides said they brought in the volunteers to cover more ground.
Abbott says he is shooting for a majority of the vote in Cameron County, which has a Republican county judge, and where the attorney general won 48 percent of the vote in his 2010 re-election win; he is aiming to break 45 percent in Hidalgo, the largest Valley county and a harder nut for a Republican to crack.
Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Pan American, said he would be surprised if Abbott reaches 45 percent in Hidalgo. Straight-ticket Democratic voters and a long history of Democratic preference in the county gives Davis a natural advantage here — as long as she gets her supporters to the polls.
“This is the bluest part of a red state,” Polinard said. “The vote turnout still is a ground game, and if she can get the votes out, they are going to be predominately Democratic.”
Abbott drew criticism from some local elected officials this year when he cited instances of drug cartel influence buying among local government officials and warned that “this creeping corruption resembles third-world practices.”
He said he meant to apply the description to any city where corruption exists, but the comment could impact his Hispanic outreach efforts in the area.
Early last week, the head of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce told The Monitor newspaper that he wants the state to pay for an advertising campaign to promote the region in the face of a stream of negative news coverage — including the flap over Abbott’s “third world” comment — and what he sees as overblown fears of lawlessness and unrest on the border.
In the minefield of immigration politics, many Republicans in Texas — most notably Gov. Rick Perry — traditionally supported the law that gives in-state intuition to certain undocumented immigrants. Others now want to repeal it. Abbott has tried to split the difference, saying he wants to tighten requirements but keep the law.
But Davis has a problem in the Valley, too: her outspoken advocacy of abortion rights. The Fort Worth senator rocketed to fame last year after filibustering new abortion legislation, and her highly publicized memoir — in which she discussed having terminated two pregnancies for medical reasons — brought more attention to her activism.
Many Democrats — including longtime South Texas Sens. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo — call themselves “pro-life,” and so do many rank-and-file Democratic voters in the predominately Catholic region. Lucio voted for the abortion legislation that Davis fought last year.
Compared with Latinos in other U.S. states, U.S Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said, “Texas Hispanics tend to be a little more conservative.”
Though abortion is not the only issue Hispanic voters care about, Davis' activism has deepened her association with that divisive issue.
“For pro-life Democrats, I think that’s one of the factors they would have look at before voting for her,” Cuellar said.
Al Beltran, a retired credit union executive from Hidalgo County, said he was “somewhat bothered” by Davis’ stand on abortion but more upset about Abbott’s “third world” comments and his support for sending National Guard troops to the border, which Beltran considers a waste of money.
Interviewed while making pro-Davis placards at the senator’s McAllen headquarters last week, Beltran said he was impressed by her fight against GOP-led public education cuts and believes it’s time to shake up the Republican “stranglehold’’ on power in Austin.
“Change is beneficial to everyone,” he said.
Abbott’s vigorous efforts to woo Hispanics from the top of the statewide ticket makes him a standout among Texas Republicans this year. But he’s not the first gubernatorial candidate to try it.
In 1998, then-Gov. George W. Bush — already eyeing the White House — showered attention on the border region and made direct and sustained appeals for Hispanic votes in his re-election campaign. It paid off. That year he won El Paso and three of the four counties that make up the heavily Democratic Rio Grande Valley, including Cameron and Hidalgo.
Cuellar, for one, doubts that Abbott will hit that high-water mark this year, saying Bush was “one of those special type of individuals” who performed particularly well among Hispanics.
Whether Abbott reaches his goal or not, the fact that he’s put so much emphasis on winning it underscores the importance both parties are attaching to Hispanics, who are projected to become the largest ethnic group in Texas in 2020, and a majority of the population as soon as 10 years after that.
Ivan Andarza, a Brownsville native who now works as an immigration attorney in Austin, is one of the dozens of out-of-town volunteers who answered the Abbott campaign’s call to go door-to-door for the campaign this weekend.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an effort like this,” he said. “I think that makes the Democrats nervous because they’re not going to have a free ride this time. Showing up makes a difference.”