Donald Trump made inroads in South Texas this year. These voters explain why.
Voters in the historically Democratic stronghold of South Texas are left wondering whether this was simply a strange election during an unusual year or a sign of a profound political realignment in the region.
RIO GRANDE CITY — It was a strange sight in Starr County: More than 70 vehicles, decked out with Trump 2020 flags, parading 13 miles along the Texas-Mexico border from Roma to Rio Grande City.
Even Roel Reyes, who flew an “All Aboard the Trump Train” flag from the back of his Harley Davidson, was surprised to have so much company. And he helped organize the late October caravan.
“I was expecting 15 to 20 cars max,” Reyes said. “Usually this area is for Democrats.”
Ten days later, when the election results came in, the rest of Texas was just as surprised at what happened in Starr County. After losing the county by 60 percentage points to Hillary Clinton, President Donald Trump lost it by just 5% to Joe Biden.
In neighboring Zapata County, which Clinton won by 33 percentage points in 2016, voters didn’t just swing more to the right — the county flipped all the way red.
And that trend continued all the way up and down the Texas-Mexico border, where Trump won 14 of the 28 counties that Clinton had nearly swept in 2016 while winning by an average of 33 percentage points. This year those same counties went for Biden by an average of just 17 points.
The results have locals wondering whether this was simply a strange election in which a norm-busting incumbent, combined with the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, has temporarily upended the border’s longstanding political balance — or whether this is a sign of a profound political realignment in South Texas.
Roberto Barrera said his choice was easy. Born and raised in Zapata, he has worked in the oil and gas business practically his whole life. So he said he couldn’t cast a vote for Biden, who said during the second presidential debate that he would “transition” from the fossil fuel industry.
“The way I see it, they’d cut my job,” Barrera said. “What else can I say?”
Oil and gas is the largest industry in Texas and employs hundreds of thousands of Texans. But nearly 50,000 oil and gas-related jobs have been lost during the pandemic as worldwide demand for oil has plummeted because the virus is keeping more people at home.
After his debate statement, Biden — who now carries the banner for the establishment, moderate wing of the party — said he would not eliminate fracking. But some South Texas voters say the leftward progression of the Democratic party — its embrace of alternative and cleaner energy and the calls by some progressives over the summer to defund police departments — has left them behind.
It’s an echo of what voters in other small town and rural parts of America said about voting for Trump in 2016.
“Aside from Hispanic heritage, most of the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas have similar demographics to Trump’s strongholds in rural communities across the country,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, a moderate whose district includes both Starr and Zapata counties. “It’s homogenous, deeply religious, pensively patriotic, socially conservative, and it’s hurting economically.”
Back in Rio Grande City, Mary Stewart voted for Cuellar and for state Rep. Ryan Guillen, a Democrat who represents Starr County in the state Legislature.
But the 80-year-old retiree also voted for Trump. After working for the Rio Grande City Police Department and for the state, Stewart said she fears Democratic officeholders will defund law enforcement agencies and come for her guns.
“Who’s going to protect us?” said Stewart, who planted a Trump-Pence sign in her front yard.
Stewart said she supported Cuellar and Guillen because she knows them, and they know the community. But Stewart and other South Texas voters who spoke to The Texas Tribune said the Democratic Party as a whole does not.
That could become a challenge for the party as it works to keep or expand its appeal to Latino voters, a large and diverse voting bloc that has become a big factor in deciding which party wins Texas and key swing states like Florida and Arizona.
In this year’s election, Cuban Americans in South Florida broke heavily for Trump as he carried the state. And a similar swing by Mexican Americans in South Texas offset some gains Democrats made in the state’s suburbs.
Trump’s statements condemning protesters and backing law enforcement connected with voters in South Texas, where a significant portion of the population either works in law enforcement or has friends or family members who do.
Federal law enforcement agencies advertise jobs on Instagram and Twitter in border counties, and the Border Patrol employs more than 3,000 people in the Rio Grande Valley alone.
Ernesto Alanis III, a land surveyor in Rio Grande City who voted for Trump, said the region’s close ties to the military and law enforcement helped push more people toward Republicans this year.
“My Border Patrol agent friends say the wall works, and helps them do their job,” Alanis said from his office, where his black Desert Storm veteran cap sits next to a red MAGA cap. “If anyone would know if a wall worked, it would be them, right?”
U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, won reelection by just three points after winning his last reelection in 2018 by more than 20 percentage points. He said his support for law enforcement and oil and gas did not help him in this month’s election.
“I think the party got penalized for being anti-law enforcement,” Gonzalez said. “People put up a sign next to one of mine in a rural area, and they had an arrow saying, ‘He’s a proud member of the party that wants to take your guns and oilfield jobs away.’”
Gonzalez added, “I get criticized by the left for this — I’m, like, as pro-oil and gas and pro-military as you can be. By no means do I support the Green New Deal and [transitioning to clean energy] overnight.”
Cuellar and Gonzalez both said the 2020 result was a Trump-specific phenomenon.
“Hispanics, especially Mexican Americans, they like this machismo, bravado, lucha libre-style politics — it’s like all-star wrestling, Trump style,” Gonzalez said. “It fits perfectly with the South Texas, Tejano person.”
And some voters said the Democratic Party is not as welcoming as it was in the decades after John F. Kennedy’s “Viva Kennedy” campaign that sought to reach more Mexican Americans.
“Biden staked the general election on disaffected Republicans and Black voters,” said Northwestern University historian Geraldo Cadava, who wrote a book about Hispanic Republicans. “It was a successful formula for Biden in a lot of ways. I just think as a result, he didn’t make Latinos a priority until way later.”
Some South Texas voters said they do not recognize the Democratic Party any more. Jay Peña, an attorney in Rio Grande City, said as a kid he was raised a Democrat like most people he knows.
“I’m one of those that was a lifelong Democrat and brought up Democratic because of our roots here,” he said. “Like basically everyone here in the Valley, the Democratic Party was ingrained in our childhood.”
Peña said he voted twice for President Barack Obama, “but I’m one of those that switched over.” He said he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 because he realized his principles lined up more with the GOP than the Democrats.
“I used to consider myself left of center,” Peña said. “I don’t anymore.”
Jolie McCullough contributed reporting.
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