By Maeve Reston and Nicole Chavez, CNN Photographs by Tamir Kalifa for CNN
Updated: Tue, 01 Mar 2022 02:31:57 GMT
As shoppers browsed the market stalls at the Pulga Los Portales in the Rio Grande Valley, Armando Acosta and Albino Zuniga caught up over breakfast before opening their lotería stand, where customers often stop to play the traditional Mexican bingo-style game.
Over the past two years, these two friends have bonded through the twists and turns of the Covid-19 pandemic. But they diverge sharply over politics in this heavily Latino region of Texas, which had been viewed as a Democratic stronghold -- until 2020.
Former President Donald Trump dramatically improved his performance in many of the counties bordering Mexico compared to four years earlier -- gains that led the GOP this year to redouble efforts to recruit and invest in South Texas candidates, including many of Hispanic descent, up and down the ballot. The question now is whether the inroads the GOP made in 2020 will hold as Democrats try to cling to their House majority in November.
Tuesday's primaries in the Lone Star State -- the first congressional primaries of 2022 -- are an early test for the two parties as they try to turn out voters like Acosta, 40, and Zuniga, 56, with control of Congress eventually hinging on narrowly divided districts like this one.
CNN spoke to several dozen Latino voters across the region, including here in the newly redrawn 15th District, an open seat that runs from the populous border areas near McAllen north to towns east of San Antonio. They raised an array of reasons why Trump resonated here more in 2020 than in 2016 -- namely his relentless focus on getting the economy reopened after Covid shutdowns -- as well as factors Democrats may need to address to win some of them back in 2022.
Though many of his family members are Democrats, Zuniga backed Trump in the last presidential election, saying the then-President's message on immigration resonated for him as a legal immigrant from Mexico and the father of a Border Patrol agent. Trump's message about getting people back to work mid-pandemic also connected with the ethos of hard work and self-reliance Zuniga says is inherent in Hispanic culture along the border. He was repelled, Zuniga said, by what he sees as the liberal drift of the Democratic Party. Those feelings only deepened as he watched President Joe Biden and the Democrat-controlled Congress hand out more Covid-related benefits to certain individuals that he believes have been too generous.
Though earlier Covid relief packages were passed under Trump with Republican support, that was a frequent criticism of Biden that CNN heard here from both Democratic and GOP voters voicing concerns about the economy and inflation.
But Acosta hopes Latino voters will reward Democrats in November for economic relief passed by Congress under Biden, arguing that Republicans often look after the wealthy instead of those in need. He is supporting the congressional candidacy of progressive Democrat Michelle Vallejo, who co-owns Pulga Los Portales with her family and has championed a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All.
"The Rio Grande Valley is divided because there's a need for so many things like better salaries and infrastructure," Acosta said. "Democrats are mostly focused on helping the people and if they help people, we should support them."
Democrats seek to re-engage South Texas Latinos
Stemming further losses among South Texas Latinos in 2022 and beyond first requires Democrats to diagnose what went wrong nearly two years ago -- an exercise that more than a dozen political strategists, organizers and party officials who work in this region answer with different theories.
The root cause, many Democrats say, was the party's suspension of most in-person campaigning and door-knocking during the pandemic, which they say allowed Republicans to lead one-sided conversations with voters.
"Democrats literally tried to phone it in, and you can't do that," said Beto O'Rourke, the former Democratic congressman who's running for governor, as he made a recent swing through Brownsville to knock on doors. Trump, he added, offered "a false choice between health and jobs," while "we left the field to them, literally, completely."
But Sylvia Bruni, the chair of the Webb County Democrats, has urged her party to also take a harder look at aspects of the national Democratic message in 2020 and how it played in South Texas. There's a disconnect, for example, between strong support for abortion rights among Democrats nationally and voters in an area where Catholic views are deeply held. The disconnect sometimes extends to immigration and climate, too, amid concerns about border security in the Latino community here and anxiety about some Democrats' embrace of the Green New Deal in a region where jobs emanate from oil and gas.
Bruni believes that Democrats did not effectively counter Republican messaging in 2020, especially on abortion, guns and oil and gas. "There was no message. ... It was really, 'Hi, I'm Sylvia. I'm a Democrat. I hear you're a Democrat. Are you going to vote for Joe Biden?' That was the message...and the others were eating our lunch."
She worries her party has not yet settled on strong, unifying themes for 2022 that will appeal to Latino voters and reverse GOP gains in the region.
"If you do an inventory of everything this man, Biden, has been able to accomplish, it's really pretty impressive. But he's in a field of alligators, fielding off attacks and then working with a Congress that is absolutely hellbent on obstructing everything he does," she said. "I know we have the substance from which to create the messages that fit the values of our community," she said. So far, "I don't think we're getting it."
Latinos were still a key part of both Biden's national coalition and his success in the Texas suburbs. Overall, Trump defeated Biden in the Lone Star State by less than 6 points in 2020 after defeating 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by 9 points four years earlier. But Biden's winning margins in many of the counties along the border were much narrower than Clinton's in 2016. The operating assumption among Democrats was that Trump's rhetoric about immigration -- dating back to his 2015 remarks that Mexico was sending criminals and rapists across the border -- would continue to alienate Latino voters. Instead, he notched symbolic wins in places like Zapata County, flipping it from blue to red four years after Clinton had won it by 33 points.
The margins in several Democratically held congressional districts in the Rio Grande Valley, including the current version of the 15th District, also tightened significantly in 2020. Republican Monica De La Cruz, who came within 3 points of toppling Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, is vying for the redrawn seat this year -- this time with more vocal support from Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. After changes to the district lines, Gonzalez is running in the neighboring 34th District, where the turf looks more favorable to Democrats. Current Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela, who held his seat with 55% of the vote last cycle, is retiring.
Both De La Cruz and Mayra Flores, a high-profile Latina running for the GOP nomination in the 34th District, are bullish about the November general election in their districts, in part because they believe Democrats have fundamentally miscalculated the concerns that many Latino voters have about management of the southern border, the treatment of Border Patrol agents and the influx of undocumented immigrants -- a central focus of their campaigns.
"The Hispanic values of faith, family, and freedom have always been the same," De La Cruz said during a recent interview at the Republican National Committee Hispanic Community Center in McAllen. Leaning into GOP talking points about the Democratic Party moving toward socialism, she alleged Democrats embrace critical race theory and disrespect law enforcement. "None of those values are reflective of what Hispanics feel and what they stand for," she said.
Flores, who immigrated to the US as a child from Mexico and describes herself as a "walk-away" from the Democratic Party after voting for Barack Obama in 2008, said concerns about border security particularly resonate with many South Texans.
"We have families in Mexico that we are not visiting anymore because we're afraid," said Flores, who is married to a Border Patrol agent, as she went door to door talking to voters in Brownsville recently. "We don't want what we're afraid of to come here."
She thinks Democrats took their votes for granted. "That's what happened in 2020. The Hispanic community in South Texas said, 'Hey, you do not own our vote. We are not loyal to you. And if you don't get to work, we're going to vote you out.'"
Gonzalez, the incumbent who narrowly defeated De La Cruz in 2020 and now could face Flores in November if they both win their primaries, called that fiction.
"Trump didn't do well because he was a Republican. It was his personality -- this bravado, lucha libre, if you will, that was attractive to many Latinos," he told CNN. Like O'Rourke, he argued that restrictive campaign protocols during the pandemic led to the erosion in the Democratic Party's Latino support in South Texas.
From the stage at a recent Tejano Democrats event, Gonzalez said some South Texans need to be reminded that Democrats brought them programs like Social Security and Medicare.
"These people that think they're Republicans, many have just forgotten where they come from, and how we arrived and how we got here," he said.
Democrat Ruben Ramirez, whose candidacy for the 15th District has been endorsed by Gonzalez, said Democrats must also connect with the economic anxiety that voters are feeling, which he tries to do by sharing his childhood experiences of living out of a car with his mom at one point and collecting extra cereal at school to bring home for his siblings. He often speaks to voters about how he thinks Democratic programs would "help lift all boats."
Examining the 2020 shifts toward the GOP and where the Democratic message fell short, Equis Research, a Democratic-leaning polling and research consortium, found that Trump's approval rating in the final year before the 2020 election improved notably among both Latina voters and conservative Latino voters who displayed greater motivation to vote than in 2016.
Equis Research co-founder Stephanie Valencia said one reason was that Latino voters in South Texas were more focused on their concerns about unemployment and the economy in 2020 than on Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric, which had dominated the conversation in 2016. The anxiety over Covid-19 shutdowns and the economy, Equis Research concluded, "created a permission structure for formerly hesitant Latinos to embrace Trump's candidacy."
Valencia noted that Latinos have experienced the pandemic in a very direct way as essential workers, caretakers and small business owners. Trump spoke to their concerns about "keeping the lights on," she said, and now "there's a huge opportunity for the Biden administration to go out and sell its economic agenda, its job creation agenda to Latinos."
Steep challenges for Democrats in a difficult economic climate
But the hurdles facing Democrats are evident in conversations with many Latino voters here in South Texas.
Joel Martinez, a 42-year-old corrections officer who said he voted for Trump because of his business background, echoed concerns about government stimulus money.
"The whole stimulus thing, it's just supporting more -- I'm sorry to say it -- laziness," he said as he emerged from a polling place in Edinburg. "You see it everywhere we go -- 'Help wanted' -- and nobody wants to fill in the gaps."
There are different reasons behind the labor shortage and a fierce debate about whether extended unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and the child tax credit championed by the Biden administration have kept Americans from returning to work sooner. Inflation is also weighing heavily on Americans -- leading some voters here to blame Biden and Democrats, while others say that accusation is unfair.
Nancy Morales, a 43-year-old Edinburg voter who used to be a Democrat but supported Trump, blamed high prices on pandemic-era stimulus passed under Biden and Democrats. She shuddered thinking about her recent bill for dinner at Chili's and said she now reconsiders every trip out of the house because it costs so much to fill up her truck.
"Everything's going up," she said. "I bought a lemon for 48 cents! Each lemon! I was like 'This is crazy!'"
She hopes Republicans will have better ideas for getting prices under control and she is cheering on the new crop of GOP Latina candidates like De La Cruz, who she had just voted for in the 15th District primary. "I said, 'Woo! We need a change here. Let's go ladies!'"
Lusia Cortina, a Democrat who sells pre-arranged funeral plans at her stall at the Pulga Los Portales, said much of the economic blame Biden is shouldering is unfair and credits him with helping things return closer to a pre-pandemic normal. But even she criticized Biden (and Trump) for presiding over "too much spending" that she thinks led to over-reliance on the government.
"Now people don't want to even look for jobs," she said, arguing that Biden and his party need to convey it's up to Americans to "get up on their own, instead of just handing them over the money."
Both O'Rourke and Vallejo, the Democratic candidate who co-owns the Pulga Los Portales, stressed that connecting with voters' more local concerns over last year's widespread power outages, for example, and the number of uninsured and under-insured people here will be critical in 2022.
"People are burned out. People are exhausted. People are concerned about how they could even make their day-by-day functional," Vallejo said. "Every single day we're showing up. ... We're letting people know that there is someone here in the fight."