U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar was elected to a second term in Congress last week with 64% of the vote.
Her win wasn’t a surprise — Democrats have controlled Texas’ 16th Congressional District seat since 1965. But her 28-point margin was 14 points below her 2018 victory.
And when Escobar saw the Election Day returns from the Rio Grande Valley, she was stunned. Her colleague U.S. Rep. Vicente González, a fellow Democrat, won reelection to Texas’ 15th Congressional District with just 50.5% of the vote. In 2018, González, whose district includes the border county of Hidalgo, home to McAllen, captured nearly 60% of the vote.
González wasn’t the only Democrat who didn’t perform as strongly as expected along the Texas-Mexico border. Though former Vice President Joe Biden carried Hidalgo and most of the state’s border counties, he did so by substantially smaller margins than Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Biden’s still unofficial 34-point margin of victory in El Paso also was the largest among the Texas border counties with Latino majorities, though still well below Clinton’s 43-point margin in 2016. Although smaller than Clinton’s 2016 margin, Biden’s won El Paso by a wider margin than Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. His margin was substantially larger than margins for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, who ran against former Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Trump’s 2016 and 2020 results in El Paso — 26% of the vote and 32%, respectively — appear to be the two worst performances by a GOP nominee in El Paso County since 1948.
El Paso County was “the star in my view of border counties and turnout for Democrats and for the Democratic Party on the border,” Escobar said. “El Paso broke (turnout) records and we were the border county that delivered the most votes to Joe Biden.”
The Texas Big Bend region (primarily Presidio County) is a demarcation line of sorts along the border. Biden generally performed better west of the Big Bend than to the east. Biden’s margin of victory was larger than Clinton’s in New Mexico’s Doña Ana County.
Biden’s better performance in El Paso than in the Rio Grande Valley likely reflects El Paso Democrats’ efforts to increase voter turnout, Escobar said. Since 2016, she has focused on convincing low-propensity voters — people who do not consistently participate in elections — that their vote matters.
“It’s very resource-intensive work, but it pays off,” she said. A countywide get-out-the-vote campaign can cost up to $300,000, she estimated.
This year, Escobar joined forces with state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, and the El Paso County Democratic Party. Together, their team of volunteers called close to 220,000 voters.
“What I’ve heard my colleagues (in Congress) and the grassroots folks in the lower Rio Grande Valley say is that the Democratic Party has essentially taken Latinos for granted and has not made investments necessary in their counties,” Escobar said.
“… This is why I pour my campaign resources into local turnout because … we’re not going to see a whole lot of attention paid to us and there are consequences to that.”
For Democrats, this lack of investment helped Trump make inroads in historically blue border counties.
Trump’s increasing appeal to Latino voters isn’t a shock to Jessica Cisneros, a progressive who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar in the March 2020 Democratic primary in South Texas. Endorsed by Bernie Sanders — the candidate nearly every Texas border county chose in the 2020 Democratic primary — she lost by almost 3,000 votes.
“There were a lot of people who felt that exhaustion of, ‘why keep voting Democrat if nothing in my life is materially changing,’” Cisneros said of Trump’s performance. “You’re talking about an area where there’s — even before the pandemic — a 30% poverty rate and a fourth of people are uninsured.
“There has been an investment of DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) down here … (which) has been hiring for thousands of jobs, and for folks here, even folks who are previously undocumented, they want these kinds of jobs because for many it’s the only chance that they have for a good government job with benefits.”
Trump’s appeal to South Texas voters isn’t so far off from what attracts them to progressive Democrats, Cisneros said.
“People here want somebody that’s going to stand up and fight with everything that they have. If you’re promising one thing and this is part of your policy platform, I don’t want to see you later throwing us under the bus,” she said.
The most pressing issues for Latino voters — the economy, health care and education — are the same ones “that are pertinent to every other demographic,” said Sylvia Gonzalez-Gorman, a political scientist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. But the Democratic Party often erroneously assumes immigration is Latino voters’ top priority, she said.
But Latino voters aren’t monolithic, even those who live on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at the Walmart likely contributed to Biden’s increased support in El Paso compared to other Texas border counties, Gonzalez-Gorman said.
“A lot of folks felt that that happened because Trump was baiting people to take these kinds of actions,” she said. “And when that happens in your own back yard that will galvanize against the party.”
Democrats underperformed across the Texas-Mexico border because “they don’t know the Latino vote,” Gonzalez-Gorman said. The Biden campaign operated on the assumption that because Clinton had done well in the region, he would as well.
It wasn’t until early voting that Biden’s wife and running mate came to the border. Jill Biden visited El Paso on the first day of early voting and Kamala Harris stopped in the McAllen area on the last day.
Meanwhile, the El Paso Republican Alliance organized Trump Trains in the weeks leading up to the election to drum up enthusiasm for their candidate, as did Republican groups throughout the border region.
Though she appreciated Jill Biden and Harris’ visits, they weren’t a substitute for voter mobilization, Escobar said.
“That’s not a real tangible investment and so what you’re seeing in the Rio Grande Valley should be a wake-up call,” Escobar said. “And I think what you’re seeing in El Paso — the work that we’re putting in and the results that we’re getting — demonstrates what happens when you do make those investments and when you do keep it up over time.”
Cover photo: Queta Fierro, a longtime Democratic Party activist in El Paso, held a sign in support of the Biden-Harris ticket at a rally at UTEP on the first day of early voting. Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)