On the eve of the Nov. 8 election, Gov. Greg Abbott found himself onstage at a San Antonio barbecue joint proudly pointing to three lawmakers he described as the “face of the current Republican Party.”
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd and San Antonio state Reps. Rick Galindo and John Lujan smiled from their spots standing behind Abbott that Monday evening. It was part of an 11th-hour push to get out the vote for the three lawmakers, each facing tough re-election battles.
On Election Day, Hurd held his seat, but voters sent Galindo and Lujan home. State Rep. Gilbert Peña of Pasadena also lost his re-election bid, and in one fell swoop the count of Hispanic Republicans in the Texas Legislature was cut in half. The losses illustrate the difficulties Texas Republicans face holding onto some legislative seats in presidential years, particularly in big, urban and diverse areas.
“We’re obviously disappointed about the outcome,” said George Antuna, co-founder of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas. “But those were the kind of races we were not supposed to win to begin with. Those were the kind of races we saw would be hard months ago.”
Galindo and Peña wrested away San Antonio- and Pasadena-based seats in districts with largely Hispanic populations amid a red wave in 2014. Lujan unexpectedly won his San Antonio-based seat earlier this year in a special election runoff that saw fewer than 4,000 voters cast ballots.
Party leaders have argued that their fates were sealed by the higher turnout that’s common in presidential election years. And they point to Hurd’s re-election in Texas' 23rd Congressional District as an important milestone for their diversity efforts.
Hurd, who in 2014 became the first black Republican elected to Congress from Texas, is one of only two black Republicans in the U.S. House, along with Rep. Mia Love of Utah. Hurd does not talk much about race, but he has brought it up while discussing the odds against him in the predominantly Hispanic district that has swung back and forth between parties for decades.
"Nobody thought two years ago that the black dude could get elected in the Hispanic district," Hurd said as he kicked off his re-election campaign in July. "Nobody thinks that a Republican can hold a 50-50 district in a presidential election year."
Hurd ended up accomplishing exactly that Nov. 8, beating Alpine Democrat Pete Gallego by two percentage points. The victory made Hurd the first incumbent to win re-election in CD-23 in eight years.
In an interview with The Texas Tribune the day after the election, Abbott pointed to Hurd’s win and the re-elections of three other Hispanic Republicans — state Reps. Jason Villalba of Dallas, J.M. Lozano of Kingsville and Larry Gonzales of Round Rock — as evidence that “the diversity continues in the Republican Party.”
“We continue our efforts to reach out to the diverse communities here in the state of Texas,” Abbott said, “and that's something that I championed during my campaign last time and will again this next time."
But even before polls closed on Election Day, at least one prominent Hispanic Republican from Texas was already anticipating damage to the GOP brand thanks to the presence of Donald Trump at the top of the ticket.
"We could’ve really done some good things in the Hispanic community if it weren’t for this Trump effect," said Artemio "Temo" Muniz, Texas chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans.
Muniz, who was Peña's campaign manager in 2014, lamented how Trump's toxicity is causing Texas Republicans to potentially lose "great, great stories that the GOP could build on."
"When you speak to these guys, their campaign guys or party guys behind the scenes, they all say, 'Hey, it's Trump,'" Muniz said.
That’s what was on Lujan’s mind in the days leading up the election. Speaking of Trump’s effect on his race, Lujan, who was “supporting him lightly,” admitted he’d have a better time swaying voters if Trump “didn’t speak” and acknowledged his re-election bid was tougher than he’d originally anticipated.
“If I don’t win, I go on, I’ve got a life, but I feel bad because I don’t want to let the Republican Party down because there’s so much good in the party taking Trump out of the equation,” Lujan said in an interview. “We have a lot of Hispanic Republicans, and we’re growing and gaining ground, and I know that my race is a big part of that, and I just hate to be the one to let them down if we don’t win.”
Long before Election Day, Trump had caused considerable unease among prominent Hispanic Republicans in Texas, leading to defections by operatives working to improve the party’s reach among Hispanic voters.
Some, such as veteran ad maker Lionel Sosa, left the GOP altogether over their nominee, while others, such as attorney Jacob Monty, gave Trump a chance but ultimately withdrew their support. Political operative Juan Hernandez, also among the founders of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas, renounced the Republican nominee and went to work for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
It’s unclear what long-term effects, if any, Trump will have on the party’s efforts to diversify its ranks and reach out to Hispanic voters at a time when the state, particularly its population cores, is becoming less and less white.
Republicans are already feeling the demographic changes in places like Harris County, which turned solidly blue on Election Day with the largest presidential margin of victory in more than a decade. It was a shift Hispanic voters were, in part, behind that helped Democrats sweep up every single countywide seat.
And their outreach efforts could continue to be marred by Trump’s brand. An election eve poll by Latino Decisions found that Trump’s support among Hispanics in Texas was down to 16 percent. But party leaders have indicated they’ll do little to change course.
“Changes nothing with respect to what the state Republican Party is doing,” GOP state party chairman Tom Mechler said on election night. “Our party will look like Texas, and that's where we're going as the state party.”
Read related Tribune stories:
- Republican incumbent U.S. Rep Will Hurd and Democrat Pete Gallego battled it out in a sprawling, idiosyncratic district.
- As Texas Democrats pick up the pieces of the 2016 election, a single-digit margin in the presidential race here and a few legislative victories don't offer much comfort.
- The latest election returns showed Democrats picking up four seats in the Texas House.