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Republican congressional nominee Irene Armendariz-Jackson went on Steve Bannon’s live-streamed program in September to outline why El Paso was poised to support a far-right Republican after decades of Democratic dominance.
“I can tell you that with over 80% of the population being Hispanic, people are conservative, they’re angry, they’re fed up,” Armendariz-Jackson told Bannon, who managed Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In 2020, Armendariz-Jackson pulled only 36% of the vote in her race against Democrat Veronica Escobar, but this year was different, she told Bannon – reinforcing her frequent social media messaging that border Hispanics were going to lead a red wave in the 2022 midterm elections.
When the votes were counted Tuesday, Escobar easily won again as Armendariz-Jackson got 37% of the vote, a single point gain in two years. A similar story unfolded along the Texas-Mexico border as Republicans made modest to little gains in a predominately Hispanic region where Democrats have long racked up double-digit victories.
“I think the Republican Party, I think it’s a loss for them,” said Sylvia Gonzalez-Gorman, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. “I think in general, if we look at the elections nationwide, there was a move away from this far right rhetoric.”
Gonzalez-Gorman noted that in Hidalgo and Cameron counties, the population centers of the Rio Grande Valley, Republicans did not win a single countywide election after making heavy investments in voter contact. The GOP also was shut out in El Paso County, where the party did not make significant investments.
She said Republican congressional candidates on the border, including Armendariz-Jackson, relied heavily on language and issues used by former President Trump.
“What we’re seeing now is the country getting kind of tired. They’re wanting to move on. Let’s get some stuff really done, let’s worry about economic issues. So I think that actually ended up hurting them in the end,” Gonzalez-Gorman said.
GOP anticipates border gains
Republican leaders said they had high hopes along the Mexican border this year, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott had his election night watch party in McAllen.
“We are going to turn the Rio Grande Valley red,” Abbott said at a rally in Harlingen a month before the election.
That didn’t happen. Abbott lost all four counties in the Rio Grande Valley – Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy – to Democrat Beto O’Rourke, by a combined 36,000 votes. Abbott also lost in El Paso by more than 46,000 votes.
Republicans still made some gains in the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas, including the GOP’s Monica de la Cruz winning the 15th Congressional District seat that stretches from McAllen to east of San Antonio. That Texas Legislature last year crafted the boundaries of that district, which had always elected Democrats, to make it more favorable to Republicans.
But generally, Democratic strength held in the most populous border counties. O’Rourke of El Paso won all of the largest border counties, mostly by double digits, although his margins often were smaller than that of previous Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
Richard Pineda, chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Texas at El Paso, said Republicans – who once again swept all statewide offices on the ballot – didn’t seem to put much energy into persuading Hispanic voters in this election.
“It could just be that they feel like they’ve got the generic advantage and they don’t need to worry about that,” he said.
Although Republicans made some inroads in 2020 and 2022 in the Rio Grande Valley and parts of South Texas, the party has shown little signs of progress in the most populous border county, El Paso.
In the five gubernatorial elections between 2002 and 2018, Republican candidates averaged 35% of the vote in El Paso County. Abbott made a campaign stop in El Paso a week before Election Day in a bid to boost GOP fortunes.
When the last vote was counted in the 2022 election Tuesday night, Abbott’s El Paso share
stood at 35%.
Partisan identification – the internal sense that a person is a Republican or Democrat – is deeply rooted and slow to change, said Walter Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“The fact is that partisan ID is going to tend to be a bit more stable, especially in some of those communities of color where they’re sort of almost a traditional identity, especially in the African American communities and to a large extent in Latino community as well,” he said.
The two parties, and their future candidates, will look to learn lessons from the 2022 race. That includes how to win over Hispanic voters.
“It has to be a message that connects identity and belonging to the Latino community. And the party that can make the best effort to do that is going to see a better set of returns,” UTEP’s Pineda said.
Wilson said a populist message that focuses on economic advance will be key for any politician seeking Hispanic votes.
“Quite frankly, I think what Hispanics and most other working class voters are looking for are messages and solutions that provide opportunities for upward mobility. And I think that neither party has been particularly aggressive in offering those kinds of solutions in recent years,” he said.
He said current Republican policy proposals have limited appeal to Latinos because they do little to address income inequality and social mobility. Democrats, on the other hand, often allow Republicans to highlight stances on divisive social issues, Wilson said.
“I think that their (Democrats’) best path forward is to steal some of that populist mojo that Republicans have been using since Trump showed them how,” Wilson said.
Pineda said both parties would be wise to look for Latinas to be prominent public faces. In this election, the major party nominees for governor and lieutenant governor were white men in a state in which people of color make up a majority.
“Whichever of these parties can put together a tiered slate of Latinas that can rise up politically, I think that party is going to be the party that determines what happens in the state of Texas,” he said.
Gonzalez-Gorman from UTRGV said Hispanic voters are not monolithic, so there’s no single answer to winning their votes.
“I think for both parties, I would tell them, engage in the community, spend some resources at the local community. Two, stick to the issues that matter for the community,” she said, citing the economy, education and health care.
On Thursday, Armendariz-Jackson finally took to her prolific Twitter account to weigh in on the election results – in Pennsylvania.