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Government/Politics

How the GOP is backing Latinas in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, setting up a political showdown

 Adrienne Peña-Garza is running for reelection for chair of Hidalgo County's Republican Party.
Adrienne Peña-Garza/Facebook
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Adrienne Peña-Garza is running for reelection for chair of Hidalgo County's Republican Party.

From Texas Standard:

With recently reshaped voting districts and money pouring in from Republicans outside of Texas, the once solidly Democratic Rio Grande Valley is shaping up to be a battleground in this year's midterm elections.

Former President Donald Trump is partly responsible, energizing his base of supporters there and drawing focus to the region. But much of the credit for the shift actually goes to the Republican Latinas who have been building momentum for the GOP in the Valley for years, and some of them are now running for office.

Texas Monthly's Jack Herrera has been following the story for Texas Monthly magazine, and tells Texas Standard about some of the high-profile Latina candidates, how Republicans have grown their base in the region in recent years and what's at stake for Republicans and Democrats amid this political shift.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You wrote, "Latinos are pushing a political revolution in South Texas to the right." Is this really a revolution, and if so, how big is it? 

Jack Herrera: You know, that's really the question. In these midterm elections, what we really see is a test of Republican ascendancy in South Texas. So this election, these midterms are going to be a huge bellwether about how well the Republican Party is performing in South Texas. And meaningfully for that party, how well they're performing among Latino and Hispanic voters.

Can you talk about the growth in the number of Latinos in the GOP in Deep South Texas, and some potential misconceptions about Hispanic voters in general?

When you look nationwide in terms of how Trump performed 2016 versus 2020, some of his largest gains were among Hispanic women, which undercounts some of the arguments that Trump's gains among Hispanic voters generally came down to his appeal to machismo or male masculinity – toxic masculinity – in the Latino community, at times.

I think that for Latinos, the fact that in a space like South Texas, some of the most key organizers and other people running for congressional seats are Latinos, says something about how that party, how that Republican movement, the conservative movement in South Texas, is being led pretty decidedly by Hispanic women, by Latinas.

Can you tell us more about who Adrienne Peña-Garza is and her role? 

Adrienne Peña-Garza was the first-ever woman elected to the Hidalgo County Republican chair, and that was back in 2018, when South Texas Republicans were hardly a blip on the radar — not even of statewide Republicans. Because South Texas, as we know, was a deep-blue Democratic stronghold.

Peña-Garza gets elected and back in 2018, and really starts to push to try and transform the politics of that region. She told me in our interviews she’s faced a lot of vitriol from Democrats in the region, claiming that she was branded a race traitor or a "coconut" — someone who's brown on the outside and white on the inside – which were hurtful phrases for somebody like Adrienne, who's a very proud woman of color, proud to be Raza, proud to be Latina. And that's similar to what I've heard from other Republican Latinas in the region, that their credentials as women of color or as Mexican Americans were called into question because of their political preferences.

Texas Congressional District 15 runs from McAllen to Seguin, sort of in a strip. What happened to the incumbent in that district, and why are Republicans now looking closely at it?

Texas [Congressional District] 15 was already sort of mockingly called the "fajita strip" district because it's so thin, from the border shooting all the way up to Seguin, which is between San Antonio and Austin in terms of its longitude. That district, already very skinny, got shaved down even more by Republicans, which pulled out Democratic districts and pushed them into the adjacent 34th District. So it turned the 15th District into, if I remember correctly, a district that went about over 2 points to Biden to a district that would have elected Trump by over 2 points, making the 15th District obviously hostile to Democrats.

The incumbent there, Rep. Vicente González, a congressman, who I’ve also spoken with, made the decision to run in the 34th instead of the 15th, where Congressman Filemon Vela decided to end his term and not seek reelection. González tells me that he's changed districts because his own hometown was redistricted into the 34th District and a quarter-million of his voters were pushed into a new district. His would-be opponent, Monica De La Cruz, a Republican who is running again in the 15th, says that she has her opponent running scared.

Tell us more about one of the most high profile of the GOP women running in the valley, Mayra Flores.

Mayra Flores is definitely in a tough race because she's running in the 34th District primary to eventually challenge the Democratic winner, which will likely be the incumbent of the 15th, Congressman Vicente González, who has $2 million to his name. Flores has raised close to $200,000, and is very prominent on social media representing the sort of Hispanic conservatism that's on the rise in South Texas.

She's become a high-profile name because of her unique perspective. She's a conservative, a strong supporter of President Trump and an immigrant. She was born in Burgos, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and grew up with her parents, who came to work the fields, particularly cotton, in Memphis, Texas, and she joined them in the fields to earn money for the family and for her own education.

What is happening in South Texas that seems to be moving the electoral balance more to the right? Is this a result of something that's happening from the grassroots up, or is this about Republican power-politics? 

I think that, in a sense, it's all of the above, and anyone who tells you that there's one reason for why this is happening in South Texas, or among Latinos generally, is kidding themselves. There's a lot of factors that went in, and I think one of the most important ones — the variable that was tested very clearly in this election — is how much Trump, as an individual, a decidedly idiosyncratic character and candidate, how much he was affecting the vote.

Now that we have down-ballot races and now that we have congressional seats, we'll see what other factors are coming to play. And one of the top ones I can think about is the fact that Democrats are the first to admit that Republicans beat them in their ground game in 2020. Democrats are not knocking on doors, largely because of pandemic restrictions. Republicans were having cookouts, having posados, knocking on doors, meeting people, and they seemed like they made a better pitch just in terms of messaging, in terms of reaching people face to face.

The next hypothesis that Republicans are really hoping for is the fact that a strand of largely Catholic cultural conservativism — a strain of that that exists in South Texas Latinos, [you're] talking anti-abortion, strong support for law enforcement, strong patriotism, a sense of country, a lot of people serve in the military or Border Patrol or law enforcement in South Texas — they're hoping that that is a cultural characteristic that makes South Texas Latinos, South Texas Hispanics, natural conservatives. And I think in a lot of ways 2022 will be a test of that theory.

Let's consider a Republican win in South Texas. What would that signal on a larger scale? How do you see that having ripple effects, or do you see it having ripple effects? 

When you look at the one truly competitive race, in Texas’ 15th District, that is the one where Republicans have already funneled almost $2 million to their most presumptive nominee, Monica De La Cruz. They are really hoping – they've opened community centers in McAllen and also other places in South Texas, Laredo, San Antonio ... they are really hoping to prove that the GOP is not a white men's club, that there's room for Latins, that there's room for Hispanics in that tent.

And for Republicans, that issue is existential in Texas. We as Hispanics in Texas are supposed to become the largest plurality in the state, the largest ethnic group, imminently in the next few years. The ability to win within our community is make or break for political parties in Texas. Nationwide, Democrats worry that if that shift that we saw in 2020 from Hispanics, Latinos toward the GOP, if that continues, that's also an existential crisis for the Democrats nationwide. They cannot win without moderate to even conservative Latinos voting for Democrats.

And if that's changing, and if South Texas is a bellwether of that change, the Democrats are going to have to massively invest in and massively rethink their plan to continue to hold power if they continue to want to be a meaningful political party, not just in Texas but nationwide.

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