How immigration politics is driving some Texas Hispanics to the GOP
By Jennifer Medina
Mayra Flores, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, has done much of her campaigning in South Texas in Spanish. She has heard one phrase repeatedly from voters as she and other candidates try to become the first Republicans to represent the Rio Grande Valley in Congress.
And what about us?
“I hear every day that they’re tired — they feel that there is so much attention and help being given to the immigrants,” Flores said. “The attention’s on all these illegal immigrants, and not on them.”
Grievance politics, it turns out, translates.
Donald Trump’s brand of populism has been widely viewed as an appeal to white voters: Republicans around the country continue to exploit the fear that the left is attacking religious values and wants to replace traditional white American culture with nonwhite multiculturalism. But similar grievances have resonated in the Rio Grande Valley in a profound way, driving the Republican Party’s successes in a Democratic stronghold where Hispanics make up more than 90% of the population.
The difference is in the type of culture believed to be under assault. Democrats are destroying a Latino culture built around God, family and patriotism, dozens of Hispanic voters and candidates in South Texas said in interviews. The Trump-era anti-immigrant rhetoric of being tough on the border and building the wall has not repelled these voters from the Republican Party or struck them as anti-Hispanic bigotry. Instead, it has drawn them in.
“Our parents came in a certain way — they came in and worked, they became citizens and didn’t ask for anything,” said Ramiro Gonzalez Jr., a 48-year-old rancher from Raymondville, on the northern edge of the Rio Grande Valley. “We were raised hard-core Democrats, but today Democrats want to give everything away.”
For years, the Republican primary in the Rio Grande Valley was an afterthought, a sleepy election overshadowed by a Democratic primary that grabbed all the attention and candidates. But this year, in the run-up to the Texas primary election Tuesday, there has been a flurry of Republican rallies, door-knocking and events, including at the Hispanic community center that the Republican National Committee opened in McAllen four months ago.
The Republican gains run far deeper than Trump and, in some ways, predate him, interviews with Hispanic voters and candidates showed. Republican candidates are building on a decadeslong history of economic, religious and cultural sentiment that has veered toward conservatives. George W. Bush performed even better in his 2004 reelection campaign in the region than Trump did in 2020. Many of those who voted for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama for president and then flipped for Trump had previously backed Bush.
For the moment, Republicans in the Rio Grande Valley remain a minority. Last year, a Republican was elected mayor of McAllen, the Valley’s second-most populous city, and a Democratic state lawmaker in Rio Grande City switched to the Republican Party, both of whom earned praise from the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott. But Democrats still dominate the vast majority of local elected offices in the Valley.
“It’s still relatively insignificant, when you look at Democrat vs. Republican overall,” said Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a South Texas Democrat who narrowly won his 2020 reelection. He is now running in a redrawn neighboring district and is likely to face Flores as his Republican opponent in November. Though he said he was confident voters would “come home” to Democrats this fall, Gonzalez criticized the party for not doing more to focus on the region.
“So far I see no action,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve had to rely on myself, not on the national party coming down here to save us, so in that respect, it’s sad.”
For decades, conventional wisdom held that the more Hispanic voters showed up to the polls, the more precarious the political future would be for Republicans. But the inverse has lately been reshaping South Texas politics: As tens of thousands of new voters have gone to the polls, Republicans have gained more than Democrats. In Hidalgo County, which includes McAllen, Trump received nearly twice as many votes in 2020 as he did four years earlier.
Trump’s performance in these border counties was one of the big surprises of 2020, rattling Democrats who had assumed that Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric would alienate Latinos. In this year’s midterm elections, South Texas is the setting for the only competitive House race in the state, and both parties now consider Hispanic voters across the country a potentially decisive swing vote.
‘I worry about our values’
Joe Cadriel, a 57-year-old veteran of the Gulf War’s Desert Storm and a retired social worker, has rarely placed campaign advertisements on his front lawn. But he made an exception for Flores, the Brownsville Republican running for Congress.
Cadriel and his wife, Diana, a retired educator, both voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and then cast their ballots for Trump four years later, convinced that he would best protect the southern border, a mere 10 miles from their Weslaco home.
The couple grew up in the Rio Grande Valley as children of conservative Democrats, and they harbored a proud independent streak. Joe Cadriel has been infuriated by illegal immigration for as long as he can remember — he said he once left a job because he felt too angry seeing food stamps and other benefits going to children of unauthorized immigrants.
“I’m OK with people coming in saying I’m going to do something productive,” Joe Cadriel said. “But that wasn’t what was happening. You’d have these people claiming they needed food stamps for their children, but their children were babies, so who do you think was benefiting from it? They were just trying to take advantage.”
Republican candidates like Flores hope to capitalize on the Cadriels and other former Democrats.
Flores’ parents worked as migrant farmworkers, moving each year to pick cotton in West Texas. Though her parents were Democrats, Flores said she was raised with “conservative values” and was drawn to Republicans because of her anti-abortion views. Soon after graduating from South Texas College in 2019, she became involved with the Hidalgo County Republican Party, volunteering as the Hispanic outreach chair while she worked as a respiratory therapist.
Flores’ campaign signs do not mention policy or party, but instead highlight three words: “Dios, familia, patria.” God, family, country.