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As midterm elections near, Republicans try to make gains with Latinos in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley

Sharon Navarro, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the messages Republicans are using to target Latino voters — about immigration and the economy — seem to be working. | Lea esta nota en español

By Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, The Texas Newsroom

Guadalupe Rodriguez runs a boutique in downtown McAllen. On a recent Thursday morning, a few customers mill about, examining the quinceañera dresses and nightgowns on display.

When asked about the election in November, Rodriguez is not shy about his support for Republicans.

He said he's voting for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott because of his anti-immigration policies.

“I like that he’s taking action because right now the border is saturated,” Rodriguez told The Texas Newsroom in Spanish. “I’m in favor of helping the migrants, but we have to do it in an ordered way.”

In McAllen and elsewhere in Texas' border counties, Republicans see the upcoming midterm election as an opportunity to make additional gains within the Latino community — especially after several of these traditionally Democratic strongholds supported President Donald Trump in 2020.

Danielle Alvarez, the communications director of the Republican National Committee, told The Texas Newsroom that the RNC has made investments in the state to capture the Latino vote, including building a volunteer network and opening three offices in South Texas meant to engage Hispanic voters. Two of them are in the Rio Grande Valley.

“One of the things that we often hear at our community centers is that Democrats and the [Democratic National Committee] aren’t present,” Alvarez said. “Most Hispanics feel like Democrats take their votes for granted.”

Alvarez points to the special election victory of Congresswoman Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, over the summer as an example. In June, Flores won a special election to represent Texas’ 34th Congressional District — a district that voted 51% for Joe Biden in the 2020 election.

Alvarez believes discontent among Hispanic Democrats on the border helped push Flores ahead.

With her victory, Flores became the first Mexican-born woman to serve as a member of Congress.

“She is a fantastic candidate,” Alvarez said. “She is the perfect representative of her diverse community.”

But Flores’ win doesn’t necessarily mean Latino voters in the Valley are changing parties.

While  a recent poll from Telemundo Station Group and Mason-Dixon Polling showed the number of Latinos in Texas identifying as Democrats dropped from 63% in 2019 to 54% now, the number of Latinos who identify as Republicans during that same period stayed steady — around 21%.

The poll also found that most Latino voters along the border stated they would support Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke over Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

At the same time, 48% of the Latinos surveyed in Corpus Christi, Laredo and El Paso said they disapprove of President Joe Biden’s work. Forty-four percent said they approved.

Sharon Navarro, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the message Republicans are using to target Latino voters — about immigration and the economy — seems to be working.

We know that Trump turned some heavy Democratic congressional districts to Republicans, so they recognize that there's an opportunity and have since sort of crafted their policies and their issues in accordance with what the Latino concerns are,” Navarro told The Texas Newsroom. “They realized that, yes, someone like Trump may have said things that could possibly be construed as harsh, but the reality is we are seeing more data that shows Latinos are more concerned about issues,” rather than party,

A numbers game

According to Navarro, the presence of Republicans in the Rio Grande Valley could also boost the GOP’s chances of gaining more seats.

“We know that Republicans take a great amount of time recruiting, supporting, and constantly visiting the areas,” Navarro explained. “Gosh, Greg Abbott has visited the Rio Grande Valley how many times? These things voters remember, and it has an impact when it comes to Election Day.”

But Abbott is not the only prominent Republican figure to campaign Hispanic-majority communities.

Trump is scheduled to hold a rally in Nueces County on Saturday — two days before the beginning of the early voting period. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 65% of residents in the county identify as Hispanic.

Álvaro Corral, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, said it’s no coincidence that Republicans are focusing their efforts on wooing Latinos in the southern part of the state — particularly in the Rio Grande Valley — over other regions.

He said Latinos in other regions of Texas tend to be more liberal and vote in a similar way as white, liberal voters. But in the Rio Grande Valley, Latinos tend to be more moderate and more likely to vote similarly to white rural voters.

“Republicans are trying to play the numbers right to get to 50% plus one, and that formula for them is a lot more favorable,” Corral said. “That's why those districts are a bit more competitive for them, and so they're going to invest in that.”

The messaging Republicans have used in the region to target Latino voters has been key — particularly on immigration. Abbott, along with other members of his party, have made the influx of migrants a cornerstone of their campaigns.

Abbott has enlisted Latino leaders to spread this message, and it has been heard by many, including Rodriguez, the McAllen store owner.

He acknowledged Republicans have been investing quite a bit in his region, and he hopes they are doing so for the right reasons.

“I hope they do it with the honest intention of not only winning the vote, but because they also want to contribute something,” Rodriguez said.

Texas Public Radio’s Carolina Cuellar contributed to this report.