What once appeared as statistical noise is now becoming clearer: Historically left-leaning Latino voters are switching to the GOP, with the potential to swing big races in November’s midterm elections.
And with slim margins determining control of Congress, Hispanic communities where Donald Trump made unexpected gains in 2020 are getting significant attention, especially the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas.
Here, the battle in Texas’ 15th Congressional District between Republican Monica De La Cruz and Democrat Michelle Vallejo is arguably the state’s most competitive House race and could be a test of Republican appeal among Hispanics.
Hispanics make up one-fifth of registered voters in more than a dozen contested House and Senate races in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Texas. While Democrats are expected to win a majority of Latino voters, their margins appear to be shrinking, dramatically, in some cases.
“What we’re seeing now is that the GOP has stepped in and helped us spread our messages to show Latinos that their values of faith, family and freedom align with the Republican Party,” De La Cruz said.
Vallejo says that the change is related to the increase in external spending by the communities: “I think that the resources and money they are getting from outside really add fuel to the fire. … It’s not very connected to the desire of the community, specifically to push and bring solutions that are South Texas”.
For De La Cruz, attending her first Trump rally inspired her to start a career in politics.
“I was busy raising a family, growing my business,” De La Cruz said. “(Trump) made me look at national politics and what was happening in DC and say, ‘Those policies don’t reflect me or my values.'”
The entrepreneurial insurance agent and mother of two says she’s a former Democrat and her family voted against Republicans for generations, including her “abuelita.”
“This area has been under Democrat rule for over 100 years and what we’re seeing here is that the Democrats have done nothing for us. … (They’re) Latinos and Latinos that they’ve just abandoned and Latinos are seeing their values of faith, family and freedom align better with the Republican Party.
As part of a trio of Latino Republican congressional candidates on the South Texas ballot, De La Cruz is trying to redefine the region’s political tradition along with former 28th District Ted Cruz aide Cassy Garcia and U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores. He was the party’s first representative from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas’ 34th year after winning a special election earlier this year.
The “triple threat,” as some Republicans call them, is part of a record number of Latino Republican candidates this fall, many of whom have taken a page from Trump’s pro-border wall playbook.
Asked if she felt offended by Trump’s rhetoric toward Latino immigrants (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” the candidate said when announcing his first bid for the presidency in 2016), De La Cruz, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, said his words did not. that they rejected
“Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have said things the way he would have said them, but I think people were able to look beyond those issues because they knew he’s not a politician. He had no political background. He was a businessman,” said De La Cruz. “He went against the establishment and put policies in place that worked for American families.”
Like his GOP opponent, the Democrat running in Vallejo, Texas’ 15th, is a relative newcomer to politics and an activist. He runs the Pulga Los Portales flea market in Alton, which his parents started about 25 years ago.
“Our community deserves more attention and more respect,” Vallejo said of the newly drawn district, which would vote for Trump by nearly 3 percentage points in 2020. “I think both national parties were leaving us out.”
Vallejo said Republicans have “demonized” Latino immigrants to score political points.
“We have pride and dignity and we have no one to laugh at us, for laughing at our community and our culture. We deserve it and we give a lot to this country”, he said.
Casting himself as a progressive in an area that more often elects moderate Democrats, Vallejo defeated his primary opponent by just 35 votes and is campaigning for guaranteed abortion rights, expanding Medicaid and Medicare and raising the minimum wage to $15.
“Many issues are being ignored,” said Vallejo. “It’s time for South Texas to see a change, and we need progressive and bold policies … so we can finally have a voice at the table.”
Vallejo cites outside influence and spending to account for the GOP’s gains in the field, saying, “Outside interests saw an opportunity to come in, pouring millions upon millions of dollars to virtually buy our seat.”
As for Latinos who defected to Trump’s Democratic side, Vallejo said he’s “hopefully hoping to win their support.”
“I’m fighting for all of our families in South Texas, whether they’re Republicans, independents or people who have never felt engaged with the political system,” he said.
Polls indicate that Latino voters are more likely than any other ethnic group to cite the economy or inflation as the most important issue facing the country. But other issues, such as immigration and abortion, are also big.
“It has become so difficult. … Supply chain issues are big issues. And inflation – we were paying $19 for a carton of eggs. Now, I pay $54,” said Rodolfo Sanchez-Rendon, owner of Teresita’s Kitchen in McAllen.
Sanchez-Rendon also faults Democrats for denigrating faith, family and small business.
“Their values have changed,” he said. “Incredibly liberal, where religion becomes an afterthought. … They have deviated from our values”.
But the economy remains the top issue for voters like Sanchez-Rendon, who immigrated to the United States in 1986 and says uncontrolled illegal immigration along the southern border is out of control.
Edgar Gallegos, a contractor, said he plans to vote Republican because of the economy, despite Trump’s rhetoric about Latino immigrants.
“I’ll take the bad tweet right now, on top of what we have,” Gallegos said.
Other voters, like Justin Stubbs, say they feel Democrats lack urgency on the immigration issue.
“Republicans seem to care and talk a lot more about the issue of borders. … I don’t see many Democrats talking about the border crisis and frankly, there are a lot of people down here affected by it,” he said.
A voter from the Alton, Texas area said he and his wife will remain loyal to the Democratic Party because he believes it will do more to help the community.
“We want candidates who will pay attention to our needs,” says Jose Raul Guerrero, and he says he is voting for Vallejo partly because he has known him since childhood. “He understands our needs. … and we need a lot of help now”.
“What people need to understand is that Hispanic Americans have hard working-class values,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a former Barack Obama campaign staffer who ran Trump’s hyper-Hispanic 2020 campaign.
“Who is America’s blue-collar billionaire? Donald Trump,” he said.
Sopo said part of Trump’s success with Latinos was tied to an ad campaign that used “words and idioms” specific to specific nationalities and generations, tailoring ads aimed at Puerto Ricans with, for example, slang and common references. to the island
“The reality is there are a lot of Hispanic communities,” says Sopo. “With culture you open doors and get Hispanics involved at the political level.”
Pointing to trends over the past decade that show Latinos making gains in income, home purchases and new business creation, Sopo said many in the community view Trump with ambition, adding that some Latinos, especially men, may find the former president’s violent rhetoric offensive. . they have worked for his benefit.
“For many Hispanic Americans — the way Bill Clinton was the first black president before Barack Obama — Donald Trump, for them, is the first Hispanic president,” Sopo said. “He’s very charismatic, he’s not politically correct, he’s a successful entrepreneur. … These values have a strong resonance”.