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George P. Bush’s first trip outside Austin after he announced his campaign for attorney general wouldn’t surprise anyone watching Texas politics these days: Like many other ambitious Republicans, he visited South Texas.
The state’s current land commissioner, who is seeking to unseat incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton, spoke with members of the Border Patrol union along the Rio Grande, met with high school students in San Juan and helped clean beaches on South Padre Island.
It was part of a flurry of GOP activity in the predominantly Hispanic region this month. Nearly a year ago, Republicans’ relative success in the areas along the Texas-Mexico border helped them fend off the strongest challenge to their political dominance by Texas Democrats in decades. Now the GOP wants to take the fight to the Democrats in next year’s midterm elections and attack one of the state’s most reliably blue regions.
The work has already begun.
In addition to last week’s trip by Bush, Associated Republicans of Texas, a GOP political group, announced this week that it would target six Democratic state House seats in South Texas, citing growing support for Republicans in the area. On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott held a border summit featuring local leaders from both parties. At the event, he announced that plans were in the works "for the state of Texas to begin building the border wall," but he didn't give details.
And in a development Saturday that gained national attention, a former chairman of the Hidalgo County GOP was elected mayor of McAllen, long a Democratic stronghold. According to the county party, Javier Villalobos was the first registered Republican elected mayor of the city this century.
“There’s something going on down there,” said Aaron De Leon, political director for Associated Republicans of Texas. “We see a great opportunity in South Texas and we want to take the offensive and take it to the Democrats in what has historically been their territory.”
Republicans were encouraged by former President Donald Trump’s surprise victories in the area during the 2020 election. Trump won 14 of 28 counties on or near the border that Hillary Clinton had nearly swept in 2016 and he came within 5 percentage points of Biden in traditionally Democratic Starr County. Clinton won the county by 60 percentage points.
Not surprisingly, longtime Democratic State Rep. Ryan Guillen whose Rio Grande City district is located in Starr is among ART’s targets. The other five targets are: Eddie Lucio III and Alex Dominguez of Brownsville, Bobby Guerra of Mission, Abel Herrero of Robstown and Eddie Morales Jr. of Eagle Pass.
Democratic officials say they welcome the GOP’s challenge.
“If they want to do that, they’re entitled to do everything they want to do, but I’m not trembling in my boots,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party and a former Cameron County judge. “All it does is allow these state representatives who normally don’t have contested elections to invest enormous amounts of resources in defending their seats and that’ll help us increase voter turnout for our nominees running for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and land commissioner.”
Democrats will continue targeting 12 to 14 statehouse seats elsewhere in the state to flip the Texas House, Hinojosa added.
But Dominguez, one of the targets, said ART’s stated goals in South Texas are “bold” and should be taken seriously.
“Both the state and national party should be looking at this very closely,” he said. “The border Democrats have been the blue wall in Texas for decades. We can’t afford to lose the blue wall.”
Republicans see opportunity
If Republicans are able to recruit strong down-ballot candidates, they’ll get a much-needed boost from some of the state GOP’s biggest names, like Bush and Abbott.
Abbott, who consistently polls as the state’s most popular politician, has shown considerable attention to the border in recent months. On Thursday, he was in Eagle Pass to hold a Border Security Summit. His chief political adviser, Dave Carney, said securing the border was a major issue for voters they've surveyed in South Texas who have dealt with the influx of immigrants near the Mexico border.
“It will help all of us to work on ways to stem the flow of unlawful immigration and to stem the flow of illegal contraband,” Abbott said.
Carney also said Latinos in the region align with Republican values like access to good jobs, keeping the economy strong and educational opportunities.
“Democrats have written off Hispanics as part of their base coalition,” Carney said. “Their issues are so much aligned with us.”
He also said the area has untapped potential for right-of-center candidates.
“Our biggest shortfall has been candidate recruitment. If we’d had a full slate in 2020 we would have had an inroad,” he said. “We’re rectifying that at the moment. We’re out recruiting candidates for the state Legislature and for Congress. Plans are to launch a full assault there to make sure we have the ballot full and have engaged campaigns up and down the ballot.”
Villalobos, the newly elected McAllen mayor, encouraged Republicans to run for office in South Texas but said they’d have to stay focused on kitchen table issues, like being fiscally conservative, to run competitive campaigns.
He also admonished GOP leaders who use divisive language that turns Latinos away and said his campaign was victorious because it garnered support from Republicans, Democrats and independents.
“The advice is just look to be inclusive,” he said. “Talk to everybody, do not be adversarial. If the Republican Party wants to grow, you’ll have to bring in the other party. Most people have a common goal, they want what’s right. Unfortunately [some Republicans] go the other route.”
Bush, whose mother is Mexican American, also sees potential for Republicans in the region, according to his campaign.
“Hispanics in South Texas believe in faith, family and freedom. They believe in border security. They’re tired of critical race theory and Latinx nonsense. That’s just not resonating with them,” said J.R. Hernandez, Bush’s senior adviser. “We’re going to continue to expand the Republican tent.”
Hinojosa said Democrats are ready.
“We’re not taking anything for granted, we’ve gotta make sure enough people are registered to vote,” he said. “We’re going to work but we’ll have many more resources to do that.”
Villalobos’ race was a nonpartisan municipal election, and Hinojosa said that the Republican actively tried to hide his party affiliation.
“Nobody other than a few people knew that Javier Villalobos was a Republican,” he said.
Still, Abbott and other Republicans celebrated his victory Saturday night.
“Javier is a proven leader who cares deeply about the McAllen community," Abbott said in a statement. "I congratulate him on his election as Mayor of McAllen and look forward to working alongside him to ensure an even more prosperous future for the people of the Rio Grande Valley."
Hinojosa acknowledged that Trump picked up support in South Texas last year. That stemmed partly from Republican efforts to tie Democrats to the “defund the police” movement and calls to move away from the fossil fuel industry. Law enforcement and the energy industry are two of the main job providers in the area. Democrats’ struggles also came from a lack of investment by the Biden campaign in the region, he said.
But Hinojosa took solace in the lack of down-ballot flipping. Even though Trump came within striking distance of Biden in Starr, Guillen handily beat his Republican opponent with nearly 60% of the vote. In his congressional race, longtime Laredo Democrat Henry Cuellar beat his GOP opponent by a similar margin.
Hinojosa said that’s because voters trust their local Democratic officials and know that they are representing their needs in Austin and Washington.
Guillen, who has been in office nearly two decades, has a campaign war chest of more than half a million dollars. Several of the other state House targets have more than a decade of experience and name recognition. And even newcomers like Dominguez will put up a strong fight.
To win his first term in 2018, Dominguez ousted longtime Democrat Rene Oliveira, who had been elected consecutively to his seat for nearly 30 years.
“Bring on all challengers,” he said. “Not only can I stand on my record but they’ll find me a very energetic and formidable opponent.”
But both parties’ ambitions in legislative races are complicated by redistricting. Lawmakers will convene in Austin this fall for a special session to redraw the legislative maps. Republicans control the redistricting process in Texas, and could have the opportunity to rearrange boundaries to give Republicans a better shot in the region.
Regardless, Democrats have to work to counter Republican messaging, Dominguez said. No state House Democrat ran on defunding police and local officials in South Texas are supportive of law enforcement and have expanded their budgets. If that issue re-emerges next year, he added, South Texas Democrats have a chance to push back on the narrative.
“Most of the state reps and congressional representatives have strong ties to both law enforcement and Border Patrol,” he said. “There was a missed opportunity to counter-message that Democrats also support law enforcement and we’re not in favor of chaos and we’re the ones who provide tools for law enforcement and border patrol. “
Democrats will also sell voters on their agenda of good jobs, health care and education, Hinojosa said. They plan to capitalize on Biden’s efforts to control COVID-19 — which hit South Texas hard — and the financial relief congressional Democrats have provided Americans, and contrast that to what state Republican leaders have prioritized.
“They didn’t get any of that from the Republicans,” Hinojosa said. “[Republicans] spent their time on these mean transgender bills and racist voter suppression bill.”
Jason Villalba, president of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, said the messaging war will be key. In the last election cycle, Republicans successfully painted Democrats as “socialists” who were on the wrong side of key local issues like border security and protecting oil and gas jobs.
“That’s not real, but they got the message across,” he said. “If Democrats are going to be effective they'll have to tailor the message to regional concerns.”