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The Rio Grande Valley's political landscape is changing amid midterm, governor elections

Members of the Zapata Trump Train Facebook Group paid to up Trump-Pence billboards in Zapata and Webb County.
Maria Mendez for Texas Public Radio.
Members of the Zapata Trump Train Facebook Group paid to put up Trump-Pence billboards in the area. The border county of Zapata is nestled between Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley.

In national elections, the Rio Grande Valley has been solidly “blue” for many years, only recently becoming more “red” in the 2020 presidential election.

All four RGV counties — Cameron, Willacy, Hidalgo and Starr — shifted right during the presidential election, with then-President Donald Trump taking 47.1% of the vote in Starr County. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump secured only 19% of the vote there. The other three RGV counties shifted right by at least 10 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election compared to the 2016 election.

Though President Joe Biden ultimately secured the four RGV counties, he did so with much smaller margins compared to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee in the 2016 election. Before the general election, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders won all four RGV counties during the 2020 Democratic primary, meaning there is, surely, a progressive presence in the RGV.

With the progressive support in mind, the Democratic Party’s hold on the area was, before this last election cycle, seen as a given. But the party is quickly learning that the Latino American population of the region is not a monolith, even as the group's population grows in the RGV and across the state.

“For years there was an assumption, particularly by Democrats, that demographic change in Texas, meaning that the Latino/Hispanic population kept rising, that would just bring automatic political change,” said Dr. Mònica Clua, a global political economy professor at University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley. “Almost as if being Latino or Hispanic made you genetically predisposed to vote for Democrats. Now, as it happens, that has not happened. So the demographic change has happened, but the political change hasn’t necessarily gone hand in hand.”

The Rio Grande Valley’s population, it seems, is either flipping towards the Republican Party, becoming more conservative than it was or is disenchanted with the two parties altogether.

“What happens here really becomes a test case of whether Latinos will always be Democrats or not,” Clua said. “What’s happening here is demonstrating, no: that they might not always be Democrats. And in fact they have as much political plurality as anybody else might have.”

This midterm election will determine where the RGV is headed politically, as more longtime leaders step down, change parties or launch a re-election campaign. The District 27 state senate race, with longtime Democratic Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. no longer an obstacle to progressive Democrats, will be one of several litmus tests for Rio Grande Valley politics as we head to election season.

Related: Progressives hope Texas State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr.’s retirement signals new era

Just two weeks after Lucio announced his retirement, two Democrats launched their campaigns for his seat. Though both are in the same party, their vision for the RGV is vastly different.

First to announce was Sara Stapleton-Barrera, who ran against Lucio in 2020. She forced him to a runoff but lost by a little more than 2,000 votes. It was the closest Lucio had come to losing the state legislative seat he’s held for three decades.

Before Stapleton-Barrera announced her candidacy, Lucio said he would run for a 17th term.

Now no longer seeking re-election, Lucio will have held office for 32 years after his term finishes in 2023.

Stapleton-Barrera, an attorney, activist and former teacher in Brownsville, is running to prevent this from happening again: a key point of her campaign is term limits for senators. Currently, there isn’t a law preventing Texas legislative members from running as many times as they want.

Stapleton-Barrera is running on much of the same platform as she did during her first District 27 run: campaign finance reform, government transparency and, as she told TPR in November after announcing her candidacy, “bringing ethics back” to Texas state politics.

Stapleton-Barrera’s 2020 campaign put Rio Grande Valley’s progressive wave into the mainstream, particularly in Cameron County, where District 27 is based.

Jessica Cisneros, who is again running against U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, did the same during her first run against the longtime Laredo incumbent in 2020. Cisneros, like Stapleton-Barrera, narrowly lost the Democratic primary, but dealt a serious blow to Cuellar’s standing in the area.

Both Stapleton-Barrera and Cisneros are hoping to continue that momentum into the 2022 midterms, but establishment Democrats are interested in keeping the status quo, too.

Alex Dominguez, a Texas House Representative for Texas’ District 37, threw his name in the District 27 race shortly after Stapleton-Barrera did. Dominguez is an abortion rights advocate, a stark difference from incumbent Lucio, who opposes abortion rights.

Dominguez’s background is similar to Lucio’s, too: both were public school teachers, Cameron County commissioners and Texas House members. Both also came from large families, raised in Brownsville.

Dominguez told TPR that he wants to continue some of the same things Lucio had advocated for: more infrastructure and manufacturing jobs and stronger public education.

Lucio also supported liquified natural gas (LNG) transport facilities and SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility making their way into the Port of Brownsville, located in Dominguez’s district. Local organizers in the Laguna Madre area and Brownsville have protested both of these, while Dominguez has previously expressed support for SpaceX and voted in favor of tax abatements for one of the proposed LNG plants.

State Representative Alex Dominguez shakes hands with former Texas Governor Rick Perry on September 27 in Houston, Texas.
State Representative Alex Dominguez shakes hands with former Texas Governor Rick Perry on September 27 in Houston, Texas.

Regardless, Dominguez presents himself as the “experienced” candidate, having held his house seat for the last two years. He seems ready to continue the legacy of Lucio in some ways, whose centrist, right-leaning positioning attracted both praise and ire from his constituents.

“(Dominguez) is basically trying to present himself as a middle ground between (Eddie) Lucio and Stapleton-Barrera,” Clua said. “Actually in order to attract some of the voters that might go for Stapleton-Barrera, he seems to be somebody who is in favor of reproductive rights. So in a sense, he presents himself as the option that will make everyone happy.”

But that experience may hurt Dominguez, as progressive candidates in the RGV look to unseat longtime and or establishment Democrats. At the same time, the Republican Party has its eyes on the Rio Grande Valley, too, as more people vote for the GOP in an area where residents often feel abandoned by Democratic leadership.

Morgan Lamantia, an attorney and In-House Counsel for L&F Distributors, and Salomon Torres, who’s previously ran for Congressional seats and regularly writes for the Rio Grande Guardian, are also running as Democrats in the D-27 race.

“The Valley, politically, has always been a place that can be somewhat progressive in some issues. But at the same time that progressiveness is always extremely socially conservative,” Clua said.

That social conservatism is evident in some RGV Democratic leadership, like Cuellar and Lucio, who oppose abortion.

But the Rio Grande Valley’s political compass is guided by several factors, according to Clua: access to education; the region’s phasing from an agricultural to a service-based industry; and the border-industrial complex, as border militarization increases across the Rio Grande Valley.

RGV residents wanting higher wages means they are likely to seek jobs that pay well. Both Sara Stapleton-Barrera and Dominguez want to bring more jobs to the RGV, but for now, residents are taking what’s available, like well-paid law enforcement jobs.

The U.S. Border Patrol has a notable presence in the RGV, where seeing their white and green SUVs driving through ranches in rural Hidalgo County is anything but unexpected. A spokesperson for the U.S. Border Patrol’s RGV Sector told TPR around 3,200 Border Patrol agents are in the RGV area at any given time.

The influx of local Border Patrol hires is in line with the RGV’s desire for higher wages. Entry level Border Patrol agents make between $49,000 to $78,000, while the average household income for Rio Grande Valley residents is just over $33,000, according to census data.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Border and Immigration News Desk, including the Catena Foundation and Texas Mutual Insurance Company.

Those Border Patrol agents, as members of RGV communities, view politics through the lens of their jobs, Clua said.

“Generally law enforcement has been traditionally seen as being outside of politics,” Clua said. “That has been changing in this last decade quite a lot. Law enforcement has increasingly developed a political consciousness as law enforcement agents.”

Border Patrol agents and law enforcement agencies locally and across the state have aligned themselves to greater pro-police movements and sentiment from the Republican Party. The militarization of the border, combined with community disinvestment by elected leadership, can make the area ripe for the extremist movements rising across the U.S.

“What we sometimes see is that white nationalist and paramilitary groups can mobilize in areas or communities where local democratic and community institutions have weakened,” Lindsay Schubiner, director for the Western State Center’s Momentum program, told TPR.

Schubiner said law enforcement, Border Patrol or otherwise, can help prevent this extremism from spreading, as it has within some portions of the Republican Party. That is, if they choose to do so.

“You need law enforcement speaking out explicitly against vigilantism and bigoted violence, instead in many areas we are seeing law enforcement either passively accepting or sometimes welcoming paramilitary groups and I think that really signals a weakening of both law enforcement itself and civil society.”

But considering local elected law enforcement heads, Democrats make up all four of the RGV county’s sheriffs and some constable seats.

The RGV is no stranger to this form of representation: Democratic leaders who more closely align, based on their voting records and sentiments, to Republicans. For example, Eddie Lucio Jr., a Democrat, was the only state senator to vote in favor of the infamous “bathroom bill,” which split the Texas Capitol between party lines.

Lucio enjoyed the almost-guaranteed security of his place in the senate, until the Texas Legislature’s latest redistricting made his district more competitive for Republicans.

Beto O'Rourke holds a campaign rally in McAllen, Texas on Wednesday November 17, 2021.
Pablo De La Rosa/Texas Public Radio
Beto O'Rourke holds a campaign rally in McAllen, Texas on Wednesday November 17, 2021.

“I think redistricting and gerrymandering really shifted congressional and state Lege districts, and it definitely forced a lot of decades long incumbents to retire like Lucio, even Filemon Vela (D-Brownsville),” Jacqueline Arias, civic engagement organizer for LUPE, a community organizing nonprofit advocating for RGV working class populations, told TPR. Arias worked on Stapleton-Barrera’s campaign in 2018.

Redistricting aside, some Rio Grande Valley residents seem to want something else: a moving away from status quo candidates, particularly Democrats.

“I think what we’ve been seeing, especially in the last election, was that South Texas voters aren’t monolithic. They want someone who will actually represent them on issues. They're not that Democratic stronghold, they’re not loyal to a party if they’re not delivering on issues.”

Those voters are changing, too.

“We’re seeing more and more people with higher education, more and more people who may have also lived in and outside the Valley at different points and have different experiences themselves,” Clua said. “It is good that there are people like Cisneros and Stapleton-Barrera who are very open about their views and who very supportive of people who, in this area particularly, have suffered huge amounts of discrimination.”

So, is the RGV becoming more conservative? Arias doesn’t think so.

Arias, through organizing and speaking with residents, believes that some of those issues go across party lines, like healthcare access, higher wages and a federal jobs guarantee. These are usually campaign promises associated with progressive candidates.

“The right is trying to paint this narrative that (the RGV is) sick and tired of Democrats not doing anything, (that) they’re turning to the Republican party,” Arias said. “But, I mean, the Democratic leaders down here are extremely conservative. They’re pro-life and they don’t support raising the minimum wage.”

Office Of The Governor, 12/18/21
Texas Governor Greg Abbott unveils Texas' new border wall construction in Rio Grande City on December 18.

That narrative is one of recent media coverage in the Rio Grande Valley, particularly after Zapata County, which borders Hidalgo County, flipped from blue to red in the 2020 presidential election. Since then, the GOP has focused its attention on RGV races, particularly for U.S. House District 15, which stretches from McAllen to Seguin. Vicente Gonzalez, the current Democratic representative for the district, said he was not seeking re-election after the district was remapped. The top leadership of Texas is watching the RGV, too. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is visiting the area more frequently than before, now with a serious electoral challenge from former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke is focusing on the RGV, too: his first campaign stops, after San Antonio, were in Hidalgo and Cameron County.

“Winning this area, for either of them, is almost as important as winning the rest of the state,” Clua said.

Arias believes the “red wave” narrative ignores the inroads progressives have made nationally and locally with RGV residents.

“I think if we have bold candidates who are unapologetic about these issues it can win people over and we’ve seen that in the Democratic primary,” Arias said. “I think if we just show people that we do want leadership that are going to fight for this until the end and not be influenced at all by corporate money and donors, I think we can win them over. And I think we can tell a different story in 2022.”

LUPE is writing that story now.

Michelle Vallejo, co-owner of the La Pulga Los Portales in Alton, Texas, is running for Texas House District 15.
Michelle Vallejo For Congress
Michelle Vallejo, co-owner of the La Pulga Los Portales in Alton, Texas, is running for Texas House District 15.

The nonprofit organization launched its political arm, LUPE Votes, in November, creating a pipeline for progressive candidates. Through their campaign "We the Pueblo," the organization asks communities to elect members for congressional office. From there, LUPE trains them to run for public office. On Dec. 14, Michelle Vallejo announced her run for U.S. House District 15, a product of LUPE Votes’ We the Pueblo campaign. Vallejo, co-owner of La Pulga Los Portales in Alton, is campaigning for free public college, Medicare For All, and a $15 minimum wage.

“We’re going through a period, almost like an earthquake type of period,” Clua said. “That means the outcome might be better, might be worse, it might actually be the same. And to me it ultimately is the openness of the moment. And having an open-ended moment is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually the biggest opportunity for change the RGV has seen in a generation.”

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Gaige Davila is a journalist based in the Rio Grande Valley. He was TPR's Border and Immigration Reporter from 2021-2024.