In Trump’s Zapata County, Democrats No Longer Want To Be Taken For Granted
The border county of Zapata, nestled between Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, is rural. To get to the county seat, also called Zapata, one must drive through scenic, mostly empty ranch land.
Once there, more houses and buildings cluster along the road. But it’s still pretty small. Across the whole county, the population is a little over 14,000.
“We don't have an H-E-B,” said Ricardo Ramirez, CEO and president of IBC Bank in Zapata. “We don't have Walmart. We don't have any big retail stores. So, everything here is about the small business, and every small business depends a lot on the oil fields.”
The industry has declined locally over the last decade with an estimated 13.8% of working-age residents employed in mining, quarrying or oil and gas extraction, according to 2018 Census Bureau data. But it’s still one of the few work options in the county.
That’s why the comments of Democrat Joe Biden, now president-elect, on transitioning away from the fossil fuel industry drove voters to the polls for President Donald Trump, Ramirez said.
It was the first time in a century that the over 94% Hispanic county backed a Republican with roughly 52% of 3,867 participating voters casting their ballots for Trump.
It was a surprising blow to the Texas Democratic Party, which had counted on Zapata and other border counties to flip Texas for Biden. But local voters and experts say state Democrats had it coming long before Biden’s comments.
“The Democratic Party gets a base establishment, and then they just don’t nurture it,” said Henry Flores, a political scientist and a distinguished university research professor emeritus at St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio. “They're beginning to develop the reputation that they're not so much concerned…until the election comes, and they come down here, get the vote and leave.”
Ramirez, who also serves as president of the Zapata school board, said “some things are not what they appear.” Like most county residents, he’s a registered Democrat.
“There is basically no Republican Party because everybody associates with Democrats, so our primary elections are local elections,” he said. “They're basically determined in the primaries. So if you win, if you win in the primary, you're not going to have any opponents in November.”
This year, only 38 people voted in the county’s Republican March primary. But in general elections, Ramirez says he’s long voted for Republican candidates.
“I think I got to vote, the first time was in the ’88 election, which was the George H. Bush, I think,” he said, recounting his votes for Republicans John McCain, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump. “So I've been voting Republican, again, at the presidential level since 1988.”
He is one of the mixed-ticket voters in Zapata that have defied conventional political labels even before Texas eliminated straight-ticket voting this year.
“The Trump supporters were already out there,” said Anna Holcomb, another Democratic Trump voter.
Her family works in the oil industry, and she had already voted for Trump in 2016, as did nearly 33% of Zapata County.
Back then she was quiet about her support, worried about offending others. But not this year. The day Biden was declared the winner by multiple news outlets, she still had dozens of Trump flags in her car.
“We had flags on our community center lawn. We had 24 flags flying to Trump during the early voting,” she said, explaining that she took them down after the election, fearing pushback.
After finding a community in the Zapata Trump Train Facebook group, she and other supporters held a local Trump Train, or car caravan, in late September. Laredo and other cities in the Rio Grande Valley also had Trump Trains, and they helped Zapata supporters like Holcomb.
“I just took initiative and contacted [an] RGV Republican Party, and they helped us get signs and information on how to get a billboard and things like that,” she said.
That’s how a big Trump-Pence billboard ended up in Zapata, on the other side of a billboard for Democratic State Senator Judith Zaffirini.
The Zapata Trump Train also paid to display two more in Webb County. It’s that grassroots work that helped Trump make inroads along the Rio Grande, according to Flores.
“The Republican Party had a really energetic ground game going on down there,” he said. “There been a couple of counties that had seemed to be on the verge of developing some strong local Republican organizations, and I think what they did was just kept feeding it, and it bore fruit in both Zapata and La Salle.”
Trump also flipped the South Texas county of La Salle, where he had previously won about 42% of the vote in 2016. He narrowly lost in Zapata’s neighboring Starr County with roughly 47% of votes this year, compared to almost 19% in 2016. And he increased his support in other border counties, including a 13-point rise in Hidalgo, 11 in Cameron, 14 in Willacy and 15 in Webb.
Sylvia Cervantes is one of the Hispanic voters Trump picked up in Laredo in 2016. She told TPR in October that she and her husband, Genaro, were split between the two parties.
But she got a surprise the day before Election Day, when she asked her husband if he had voted.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I voted for Trump, Sylvia,’” she said.
Genaro, a veteran, told her it was because he feared national Democrats are moving toward socialism.
“He’s a soldier… so for that sole reason he changed his mind,” she said in Spanglish. “When you’re a soldier and you risk your life to fight for freedom, nobody wants socialism.”
Back in Zapata County, Trump supporter Yvette de Leon, a secretary at an oil field services company, said she also finds it increasingly hard to support the Democratic Party outside of local elections.
“We're a small town and like everybody says, we're one of the poorest counties in Texas,” she said. “And that's really sad that people are OK with that. I mean, it's sad that people want to keep voting Democrat, so we can continue being one of the poorest counties in Texas.”
Newly re-elected County Attorney Said Alfonso “Poncho” Figueroa, a Biden supporter, said this is why Zapata County’s needs align more with the ideals of the Democratic Party.
“There's a lot of individuals that are below the poverty line, you know, so these are people that receive governmental benefits, that receive different types of services from the federal government that Republicans have routinely been against,” he said. “These entitlements that they call, but have been a such an important part in helping to assist families in need.”
But de Leon and others say they want more.
“People are in poverty, and even though they get free food stamps, they get all these things, don't you think that they might want jobs instead? Where's the jobs?” she asked, explaining that she would like to see more commerce or manufacturing in Zapata but didn’t see Biden’s plan to transition from fossil fuels as “realistic.”
Split-ticket voters were also concerned by the left’s critiques of law enforcement, said Figueroa, explaining that the sheriff’s office and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are another big source of jobs.
“A large percentage of our law enforcement officers, which are individuals that I work with on a daily basis, they were under this misconception that Trump is the ‘law and order’ President of the United States and that Biden's election would subsequently lead to anarchy,” he said.
Democrats’ push for more gun restrictions has also been a problem “always kind of lingering in the background,” he said.
“Most everyone owns a gun because most everyone here is a hunter,” he said. “Having a rifle and pistols is just something that's always been a part of the culture here.”
Others like Isela Gonzalez Lindquist, a saleswoman at a Laredo mattress store, were drawn to Trump because of their Christian or Catholic ideals.
“Me being a mom of three and a wife, and a Christian, and a very family-oriented person, and pro-life, those are the issues that matter the most to me, and, you know, he's unashamed to support the Christian community,” she said.
But they warn that they don’t agree with everything Trump or the Republican Party champion.
Lindquist, for example, said she supports gay rights, and like most people in Zapata, she doesn’t think Trump’s border wall is needed. The county government itself is suing the Trump administration to try to stop construction.
But she felt Trump was the best person for the job of president.
“Like I told a friend of mine, you know, he's not my friend,” Lindquist said. “He's my president. You know, I wouldn't choose to be friends with a guy like that. But I like what he brings to the table. I like him because represents strength. He doesn't let down. He's got grit and tenacity.”
Ramirez, the bank and school board president, said he’s not a firebrand conservative.
“I voted Republican for the president, but I am very, very pro-choice,” he said. “I have three daughters. You think that they're gonna enjoy it, if somebody tells them what they need to do with their body?”
So what’s the political future of Zapata County? Texas Republicans, including Governor Greg Abbott, have pointed to Zapata as a victory, though they have mischaracterized Zapata as part of the Rio Grande Valley. Democrats also won all down-ballot races in Zapata.
But residents like Lindquist see the opportunity for more Republican representation.
“My little girl is a sophomore in high school, and she's got a classmate who has the dream and the goal of running as a Republican for office in Zapata. So we'll wait to see,” she said. “I foresee some young Republicans in our near future. As a matter of fact, I was highly encouraging my daughter and her friend to form a young Republicans club.”
Others like Ramirez aren’t so sure this will usher in a local Republican party.
“People tried, but it never, it never caught on,” he said.
Flores said Democrats should “keep an eye out for that,” but he said their path to flipping Texas may still lie among young Latino voters, who turned out in record numbers. Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders also won most border counties and barely lost Zapata to Biden during the Democratic presidential primary in March.
“I wouldn't worry too much about the older conservative voters. I'd be organizing among the young right now, because they're turning out in a lot higher numbers,” Flores said. “And frankly, they're going to be around a lot longer than the older voters are.”
One thing is for sure, voters like de Leon don’t want to be taken for granted anymore.
“I heard that Biden, they're claiming that he's the president now, and I’m fully willing to accept it. If that's God's will, that's God's will,” she said when the presidential race was called. “But, you know, I hope that they notice. I hope that they notice that we need a difference in Zapata. Zapata needs something different.”