What first appeared as statistical noise is now becoming clearer: Historically left-leaning Latino voters are shifting toward the GOP, with the potential to swing major races come November’s midterm elections.
And with razor-thin margins determining control of Congress, Hispanic communities where Donald Trump unexpectedly made gains in 2020 are coming into sharp focus, especially the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas.
Here, the battle for Texas’s 15th Congressional District between Republican Monica De La Cruz and Democrat Michelle Vallejo is arguably the state’s most competitive House race and may be a test for Republicans’ appeal among Hispanic Americans.
Hispanic Americans make up a fifth of registered voters in more than a dozen hotly contested House and Senate races in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Texas. While Democrats are still 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 get our messaging out to show Latinos their values of faith, family and freedom really align with the Republican Party,” De La Cruz said
Vallejo argues that the shift is tied to an increase in outside spending by the GOP: “I think the resources and money they’re getting from the outside really does add fuel to their fire. … It’s not deeply connected with the desire from the community to drive up and bring solutions that are specifically from South Texas.”
Inspired by Trump
For De La Cruz, attending her first Trump rally inspired her to start a career in politics.
“I was busy raising a family, raising my business,” De La Cruz said. “(Trump) caught my attention to look at national politics and what was happening in DC and say, ‘Those policies don’t reflect me or my values.’”
The entrepreneur insurance agent and mother of two says she’s a former Democrat whose family voted against Republicans for generations, including her “abuelita.”
“This area had been under Democrat rule for over 100 years and what we’re seeing here is that Democrats haven’t done anything for us. … (They) just abandoned Latinos and Latinos are seeing that their values of faith, family and freedom just align better with the Republican Party.”
Part of a trio of Latina Republican congressional nominees on the ballot in South Texas, De La Cruz is attempting to redefine the region’s political tradition alongside Cassy Garcia, a former Ted Cruz aide who is running in the 28th District, and US Rep. Mayra Flores in Texas’ 34th who became the party’s first representative from the Rio Grande Valley in more than a century after winning a special election earlier this year.
The “triple threat,” as some Republicans call them, are part of a record number of Republican Latino nominees this fall, with many taking a page from Trump’s pro-border wall playbook.
Asked whether she ever felt insulted by Trump’s rhetoric toward Latino immigrants (“They are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” the then-candidate said when announcing his first presidential run in 2016), De La Cruz, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, said his words didn’t turn her away.
“Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have said things the way he said them, but I think people were able to look past those things because they knew he’s not a politician. He didn’t have a political background. He was a businessman,” said De La Cruz. “He stood up against the establishment and put forth policies that worked for American families.”
‘More attention and more respect’
Like her GOP opponent, Vallejo, the Democrat running in Texas’ 15th, is a relatively new to politics and an entrepreneur. She operates the Pulga Los Portales flea market in Alton, which her parents founded some 25 years ago.
“Our community deserves more attention and more respect,” Vallejo said of the newly drawn district, which would have voted for Trump by nearly 3 percentage points in 2020. “I think that 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 will not stand for anyone making fun of us, making fun of our community and our culture. We’re deserving and we give a lot back to this country,” she said.
Running as a progressive in an area that more often elects moderate Democrats, Vallejo defeated her primary opponent by only 35 votes and is campaigning on guaranteed abortion rights, expanding Medicaid and Medicare, and raising the minimum wage to $15.
“There are a lot of issues being ignored,” Vallejo said. “It’s time we see a change for South Texas, and we need progressive, bold policies … so that we finally get a voice at the table.”
Vallejo points to outside influence and spending to account for the GOP’s gains in the area, saying, “Outside interests did see an opportunity to swoop in, pouring millions and millions of dollars to pretty much buy up our seat.”
As for Latinos who drifted from Democrats to support Trump, Vallejo said she “looks forward to hopefully earning their support.”
“I’m fighting for all our families here in South Texas, whether they’re Republican, independent or people who have never felt engaged by the political system before,” she said.
Polling indicates that Latino voters are more likely than any other ethnic groups to cite the economy or inflation as the most important issue facing the country. But other issues, such as immigration and abortion, also loom large.
“It’s become so difficult. … Supply chain issues are a big problem. And inflation – we used to pay $19 for a box of eggs. Now, I pay $54,” said Rodolfo Sanchez-Rendon, the owner of Teresita’s Kitchen in McAllen.
Sanchez-Rendon also faults Democrats for undervaluing faith, family and small business.
“Their values have changed,” he said. “Extremely liberal, where religion becomes an afterthought. … They’ve drifted from our values.”
But the economy remains the most important issue to voters like Sanchez-Rendon, who immigrated to the United States in 1986 and said unchecked illegal immigration is out of control across the southern border.
Contractor Edgar Gallegos said he plans to vote Republican because of the economy, despite Trump’s rhetoric about Latino immigrants.
“I’ll take a mean tweet right about now, over what we have,” Gallegos said.
Other voters, like Justin Stubbs, say they feel Democrats lack urgency on the issue of immigration.
“It seems like Republicans care and talk about the border issue a lot more. … I just don’t see a lot of Democrats talking about the border crisis and honestly, there’s a lot of people down here that are affected by that,” he said.
One voter in nearby Alton, Texas, 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, who says he’s voting for Vallejo partly because he’s known her since she was a child. “She understands our needs. … and we need a lot of help right now.”
‘The first Hispanic president’
“What people have to understand is that Hispanic Americans have hard working-class values,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a former Barack Obama campaign worker who led Trump’s hyper-local Hispanic advertising in 2020.
“Who’s America’s blue-collar billionaire? Donald Trump,” he said.
Sopo said part of the Trump’s campaign’s success with Latinos was tied to an ad campaign that “used words and ways of speaking” that were unique to specific nationalities and generations, tailoring ads meant to target Puerto Ricans, for example, with slang and references common to the island.
“The reality is there are many Hispanic communities,” Sopo says. “You open the door with culture and engage Hispanics on a policy level.”
Pointing to trends over the last decade that show Latinos experiencing gains when it comes to incomes, home purchases and starting new businesses, Sopo said many in the community view Trump aspirationally – adding that among some Latinos, especially men, the former President’s brash rhetoric may have worked to his advantage.
“To a lot of Hispanic Americans – the same way that Bill Clinton was the first Black president before Barack Obama – Donald Trump, to them, is the first Hispanic president,” Sopo said. “He’s very charismatic, he’s not politically correct, he’s a successful entrepreneur. … These values really resonate.”