By Sabrina Rodriguez
Democrats were caught off guard by Donald Trump’s numbers in South Texas in 2020. The Hispanic Republican women who live there were not.
Many of them have played a leading role in urging their neighbors in majority-Hispanic South Texas to question their traditional loyalty to the Democratic Party.
Hispanic women now serve as party chairs in the state’s four southernmost border counties, spanning a distance from Brownsville almost to Laredo — places where Trump made some of his biggest inroads with Latino voters.
A half-dozen of them are running for Congress across the state’s four House districts that border Mexico, including Monica De La Cruz, the GOP front-runner in one of Texas’ most competitive seats in the Rio Grande Valley.
It’s some of the clearest evidence that Trump’s 2020 performance there may not have been an anomaly, but rather a sign of significant Republican inroads among Texas Hispanics — perhaps not enough to threaten the Democratic advantage among those voters, but enough to send ripples of fear through a party that is experiencing erosion among Hispanics across the country.
“For so long, people here just never had Republicans knocking on their doors and calling them the way we did in 2020. The majority of us are women that did it then and are doing it now because we feel it’s our responsibility to keep the American Dream alive,” said Mayra Flores, aleading candidate for the GOP nomination in a South Texas-based congressional seat.
For Flores, the road to becoming a Republican was similar to the path traveled by many Hispanic women in South Texas. She grew up seeing most of her immigrant family vote Democrat and felt that it was standard for Hispanics to only vote for Democrats. Then, she says, came an inflection point where she began to question her loyalty to the party.
A family member asked if she knew what both parties stood for, and after looking into it, Flores felt that her religious, anti-abortion and pro-border security views were more conservative than she’d ever thought and more in line with the GOP. Five years ago, she got involved in her local GOP and now a majority of her family votes Republican, too.
She wasn’t surprised at all to see Republicans gain ground in 2020 along the Texas-Mexico border, even as Democrats and Republicans outside the region expressed shock at results in places such as Zapata County — where Trump became the first GOP presidential nominee since 1920 to carry the county.
Neighboring Starr Countysaw the most dramatic shift of any county in the state when thousands more Republicans turned out to vote than in prior elections. While President Joe Biden ultimately won the county with 52 percent of the vote to Trump’s 47 percent, that paled in comparison to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance, when she garnered 79 percent to Trump’s 19 percent.
Claudia Alcazar, chairwoman of the Starr County Republican Party, switched parties about two years ago after being a Democrat her entire adult life. She said it hasn’t been an easy transition in communitieslike hers that remain majority Democratic, pointing to the strain it has caused in her own family.
Alcazar, 54, said her decision to become a Republican came after discussing politics with a high school friend running for mayor.
“We went down the list of all my beliefs and at the end I was like, ‘Oh my God, I am a Republican. I just didn’t know it.’ I was so used to being told and seeing myself as a Democrat,” she said. “It’s like being used to drinking Coca Cola and then one day you taste Dr. Pepper and you’re like, ‘wow, I really like this one.’ I truly shocked myself.”
After a pause, she said, “And some of my family members. They’re not happy with me.”
Like Alcazar, Hispanic GOP women in the Rio Grande Valley don’t have one specific reason for why they ultimately switched parties, according to interviews with several Hispanic GOP women officials across South Texas and GOP operatives.
They want more border security or are staunchly against abortions. They feel their husbands, family members, neighbors and friends that are Border Patrol agents or are in law enforcement are being unfairly villainized by Democrats. They worry Democrats are hostile to the oil and gas industry, which provides many good-paying jobs in the state. They worry the left is forgetting family values and the value of work.
Broadly, they also argue that Democrats outside of the Valley have miscalculated that Hispanics there are as progressive as Hispanic voters in more liberal strongholds such as California and New York, when in reality, they’re far more moderate.
Nationally, some of Trump’s largest shifts in approval ratings were among Hispanic women. A report by Democratic research firm Equis in the wake of the election found that Trump’s net job approval among Hispanic women, especially young ones, grew dramatically in the year leading up to the election. Conservative Latinas, in particular, also became significantly more motivated to vote leading up to the election, the report found.
And the shift for Hispanic women didn’t just happen in Texas. Another analysis by Democratic voter data firm Catalist found that support for Democrats among Latinas in Nevada dropped by 11 points from 2016 to 2020, compared to Latino men, whose support declined by 6 points.
National Republican groups have already begun making investments to build on the work being done by the local Hispanic GOP leaders.
The Republican National Committee, for example, has opened four community centers in Hispanic-heavy areas of Texas, including Laredo, McAllen and San Antonio. An RNC spokesperson described the community centers as “not your traditional political field offices” but rather as places to host workshops, host movie nights and engage with the community for more than just political events.
The spokesperson said this election would represent the RNC’s largest-ever presence in South Texas, noting there are already 20 full-time staff based in the area.
“It’s unprecedented what we’re seeing because prior to 2020 we didn’t have this kind of support at all,” said Flores. “I can only imagine how much more we’re going to be able to do with their support.”
One group, Project Red Texas, took notice of the party’s gains in South Texas with Hispanic voters in 2020 and jumped in to recruit candidates for local races. The group, run by Wayne Hamilton, a long-time GOP operative and former executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, recruited 135 candidates for local races, such as county judge. Hamilton estimates that about half of those he recruited are Hispanic and a good chunk are women.
“There’s no question things are changing down in the Valley,” Hamilton said, acknowledging it’s a new phenomenon. As recently as 2018, he said, there really wasn’t a bench of GOP candidates to run, nor a lot of effort spent to recruit and organize in South Texas.
Alcazar agreed that it’s only in the past two to three years that she’s seen more coordination across the region — and she credits some of it to more women being involved.
“We’re finally united ourselves,” Alcazar said. “We’re doing this because, as mothers and career women, we’re finally coming out and saying we’re part of this party and want to make sure our issues are paid attention to and heard.”
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