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This special election is testing Republican efforts to court Latino voters


Ricardo Requejo Jr., a campaign aide to Frank Ramirez, places a sticker with information about the runoff election on a sign outside of Ramirez’s campaign headquarters in San Antonio, Oct. 16, 2021.

By Edgar Sandoval


For as long as María Rodríguez can remember, the South Side of San Antonio has just about always elected Democrats, Hispanics like herself who emphasized improving public education and access to health care.


But last week, as she walked out of an early polling site where she had cast a ballot in a tightly contested runoff for an open state House seat, Rodríguez, 55, wondered whether her once solidly Democratic district might flip.


This time, there was a strong chance that the Republican candidate, a Latino who briefly held the seat in 2016 and received the most votes in last month’s five-way special election, could emerge the victor and represent Rodríguez and about 160,000 of her mostly Latino neighbors.


“I’m nervous,” she said.


The contest for the vacant seat in the 118th District has exposed the vulnerabilities of a traditionally Democratic stronghold, as Republicans make an all-out effort to gain ground with Latino voters in South Texas. It also has tested the progress of a Republican Party that has openly courted those voters, who have cited a range of grievances, from rising crime and faltering infrastructure to feeling abandoned by Democrats.


None of the three Democrats and two Republicans who ran in the special election received a majority of votes, leaving voters with one candidate from each party — both Latinos who were raised in the district. Early voting began last week, and Election Day is on Nov. 2.


The Republican candidate, John Lujan, a 59-year-old retired firefighter and former sheriff’s deputy who now owns an IT firm, has campaigned on a platform of public safety and job creation. His opponent, Frank Ramirez, a 27-year-old former legislative aide, has zeroed in on investments in public education, aging infrastructure and property tax relief.


In the special election, held to replace a Democrat who resigned this year to take a teaching position at a college, Lujan garnered nearly 42% of the vote and Ramirez captured about 20%. The two other Democrats accounted for a combined 30% of the 7,075 votes cast. But in the end, a total of 47 more ballots were cast for Republicans — enough to give the GOP a slim edge.


“It’s really anybody’s race,” said Jon Taylor, a political-science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has followed the special election closely.


At the three early voting sites across the district, traffic over the past few days has been steady but slow.


Martin Flores, 57, a longtime Republican who voted for Lujan, said it was time for a Republican to represent a growing conservative swath of Texas. The issues driving him, he said, are rising taxes and a spike in deadly crime that has plagued major cities. (Homicides were up in San Antonio last year, but overall crime was not.)


“I’m confident that every decision he makes,” Flores said of Lujan, “he’s going to listen to the people.”


Diana Espinoza, who is in her 40s and works in human resources, said she recently had a short and pleasant conversation with Lujan but was not convinced to vote for him. As the mother of a sixth grader, she said she was most concerned in this contest with increasing access to technology at local schools. She worries that a Republican will have different priorities. She also recognizes that Democrats have largely been stymied at the State Capitol by a Republican majority.


A victory by Ramirez, she said, could help usher in an era of a long-promised blue wave in an increasingly ethnically diverse state.


“I want the Democrat to win,” Espinoza said. “But if Lujan wins, then I want him to do a good job for us. It shouldn’t matter what party you are from.”


Historically, voters in the district have tilted left. In the 2020 election, 56% voted for President Joe Biden, while 42% supported Donald Trump. (Biden captured 58% of the vote in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio.)


But today, Democrats are increasingly alarmed at what appears to be waning support among Latino voters, once a reliable constituency. In recent polls, Biden’s overall approval rating was in the low-to-mid-40s, and about 50% among Latino voters.


In South Texas, where there have been some signs that the Republican Party is making headway with the Latino population, conservative operatives said they wanted to see the national polling numbers translate into votes for their candidates. And San Antonio — a majority Hispanic city — has long been seen as the gateway to the rest of the region.


Indeed, farther south in the Rio Grande Valley, along the state’s border with Mexico, Republicans have made some progress. Although Biden won Hidalgo County, which includes McAllen, by 17 percentage points last year, it was a considerably closer contest than Hillary Clinton’s 40-point victory. In nearby Zapata County, Trump won by 5 points.


The decline among progressives in majority Latino enclaves has pushed the GOP to expand its base beyond an overwhelmingly white political coalition, buoying them to challenge Democrats on their turf. The Republican National Committee now runs offices in San Antonio, McAllen and Laredo, another border city, to court more Latino voters.


“Republicans are doing a much better job at outreaching to Latinos,” said Sharon Navarro, a political-science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


On Monday afternoon, Emmanuel Alvarez, 21, took his 65-year-old mother, Maria Jasso, a retired factory worker, to a polling site to pick up campaign pamphlets on each candidate.


They had not made up their minds, though Jasso, who said improving access to health care and fixing cracked roads across much of her neighborhood were top of mind, was leaning toward Ramirez. Her son, on the other hand, said it might come down to personality. So far, he has agreed with both candidates and their platforms.


“Both have good ideas,” he said. “I’m not liberal or conservative. I fall in the middle.” The question, he said, was whether to cast a ballot for the less experienced politician or someone who had already served once before but could align himself with the state’s Republican majority.


“I don’t know yet,” Alvarez said. “Let’s see who convinces me before Tuesday.”


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