The shift extended through the more than 1,200-mile border, from the populous lower delta of Brownsville and McAllen to the sparse ranchland near Laredo and the high desert of El Paso.
Biden won majorities in most counties, but by dramatically smaller margins than Hillary Clinton in 2016. Clinton won Starr and Hidalgo counties by commanding margins — 60 and 40 percentage points, respectively. Biden won Starr County by five points and Hidalgo by 17.
The bluest of blue counties along the river, Zapata County, flipped to President Trump, who won 52.5 percent of the vote. It was the first time since Reconstruction that a Republican presidential candidate won Zapata County.
Zapata and Starr counties are tiny communities that may never sway an election. But the story of Trump’s performance and Biden’s backslide along the Texas border, experts say, shows the importance of cultivating deeper relationships with a diverse Latino population that continues to claim a growing and dominant share of the Texas electorate.
Alfonso Solis was an unemployed oil industry worker when Donald Trump ascended to the presidency and promised jobs. The 32-year-old soon found steady work in west Texas. He voted for Trump this year.
Alisa Rios-Carroll could not stop smiling after election workers rang a bell for her as she slipped her first ballot into the machine Tuesday. The recent college graduate skipped the 2016 election but said the pandemic and health care moved her to vote for Biden.
Both are Mexican Americans or Tejanos — the largest Latino group in Texas. Latinos nationwide voted in record numbers this year even as political parties consistently generalize about and misunderstand them — yet claim their support in national elections.
Their differences render a complex portrait of Latinos in the Lone Star state and the country at large. The various communities that comprise “Latinos” in Texas are diverse depending on their social class, assimilation, generation, education, immigration history and region. This brings a layer of nuance to political behavior that polling and models fail to capture, defies ideological strictures and demands meaningful engagement.
“They are conservative, liberal, indifferent and hybrid,” said Trinidad Gonzales, a professor of history and Mexican American studies at South Texas College. “Part of the injustice of living as a minority in the United States is not being afforded the same understanding of personhood and its complexities and contradictions that everyone else gets to live with.”
Latinos represent about 30 percent of eligible voters in Texas and more than 40 percent of the population. But every year, more than 203,000 Latinos come of voting age in Texas, said Rogelio Saenz, a demographer at the University of Texas-San Antonio. While White migration to the state has slowed, Saenz said, there has been a significant increase in Latinos and African Americans moving to Texas in recent years.
“There’s evidence up and down the ballot,” said Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project. “If you want the Latino vote, you’ve got to earn it.”
Moving to the right?
Ross Barrera wasn’t happy with what he found in his hometown of Rio Grande City after retiring from the U.S. Army in 2017. The longtime Republican repudiated the Democratic one-party rule that dominated local government and school district — the largest employers in a county where few job options exist.
Barrera was encouraged by his cousin, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff Luis Saenz, to take the helm of the local Republican Party. He took cues from his counterpart in neighboring Hidalgo County, Aron Peña, who used what he learned as a Democratic campaign worker to draw disaffected Hispanic Democrats to the Republican Party.
Peña and his family switched parties in 2010, helping to form the foundation of a Republican grass-roots resurgence in the Rio Grande Valley. They organized gun groups, Boy and Girl Scout parents, Bible study groups and started College Republicans chapters to run conservative candidates for government. They encouraged church groups to vote not for parties but values, specifically promoting antiabortion issues and upward mobility in one of the poorest and most religious regions of the country.
“Republicans sometimes sneer at Obama’s past as a community organizer. But I correct them because he had the right idea. We took that Democratic playbook and applied it here,” Peña said. “We seized on the Democratic Party’s alienation of centrists.”
Texas Republicans don’t see changing demographics as the death knell of their party. Abbott made nearly 20 visits to the Rio Grande Valley during his 2014 gubernatorial campaign and made it his first stop in his 2018 reelection bid. He earned endorsements from local leaders and campaigned for Republicans there.
“A couple of my friends in town asked me, ‘How come we’re not doing a Trump train?’ ” Barrera recalled. He wasn’t sure if there were enough Republicans to make it work.
Forty-six cars showed up. And more kept arriving.
Barrera describes himself as an American or Texan of Mexican descent, whose family has lived here for generations, and who speaks English or “Tex-Mex,” instead of Spanglish. He can still remember the spankings from nuns for speaking Spanish in Catholic school. When he was in the military, he said, there were no hyphenated identities, only Americans.
“It’s hard to be a Republican here because you are stepping out of the norm,” Barrera said.
Barrera’s neighbors are Border Patrol and U.S. Customs agents, veterans and oil and gas workers, who he argues are naturally conservative. Many Latinos here also identify as White and don’t subscribe to a pan-ethnic identity apart from their Texan identity.
“Hispanics have been acculturated in Texas over many generations and because of that, their perceptions are much more like that of the Anglo population,” said Jason Villalba, president of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation.
University of Texas San Antonio political scientist Sharon Navarro said the conservatism of some Texas Latinos is nothing new, particularly in rural communities. The difference this year is that Republicans did the work to court these voters and tailor their message about the election around the economy and jobs.
Republicans said they are convinced that the margins they won in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond is a sign that the region’s politics are trending in their favor.
“The future of South Texas is Republican,” Peña said.
Ideology v. engagement
Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and Democratic presidential candidate, said he doesn’t buy that Texas Latinos are naturally inclined to conservatism.
Democrats still won a large majority of votes in Texas’ most populous communities and suburbs. Analysis from UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative showed Biden earned more than three-quarters of votes in precincts with high Latino concentrations in Dallas, Tarrant, Travis and El Paso counties, which include Austin and Fort Worth.
Even in the Valley, voters have shown an openness to liberal platforms — Democrats chose Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the primary. The red shift in the border region is a question of engagement, Castro said.
“The Latino community is simply too important to the Democratic coalition to allow any kind of erosion,” he said. “It’s very important that we spend time understanding what happened along the border.”
Jen Ramos, a leader in the state’s Democratic Party executive committee, grew quiet late Tuesday when she saw how many people on the border voted for Trump, including in her hometown of Laredo.
“But you don’t want to say ‘I told you so,’ on election night,” she said.
While there was some liberal organizing in these communities, Ramos said it wasn’t enough and came too late. The top Democrats in the state party are nearly all from South Texas but offered no alternative or counter messaging. In 2018, unsuccessful Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke struggled to get out the vote in the Valley.
“We as a party, need to fix this and regain the trust of our voters,” Ramos said.
Jessica Cisneros has some ideas. The young immigration attorney’s upstart but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), a longtime Democrat known to vote with Republicans on some issues, in last spring’s Democratic primary, started as a liberal response to her neighbors’ disenchantment.
“You have a lot of folks that feel like they have been neglected and they keep voting Democrat but not much is changing for them,” she said. “This area, before the pandemic, had a 30 percent poverty rate and a fourth are uninsured. I can see why people might be open to voting Republican.”
But Democrats said that doesn’t mean they can’t recoup support. Cisneros’ campaign was “unabashedly progressive,” but when she knocked on doors, the candidate didn’t use ideological labels. She instead explained how policy directly impacted residents’ lives. Cisneros eventually won Hidalgo county but fell short districtwide.
The Texas Organizing Project Educational Fund commissioned a study on Latino voters statewide that found they struggle to connect their political interests to the policies of those in power and do not strongly identify with major political parties.
Arturo Zuniga and Betty Estrada voted for the first time at two separate San Antonio polling locations on the last day of early voting. Both said they didn’t see how politics impacted their lives until these last four years and voted for Biden.
“This year, I just had to,” said Zuniga, 65, cradling the voting sticker in his hand like a precious totem.
“Everything is just terrible,” said 56-year-old Estrada, who lost friends in the pandemic and was afraid her vote won't matter. “It was more important this time.”
State Democrats said the party is doing a post-mortem to win back Latino voters. But some Latino political activists who have raised alarms about the changing political winds said the playbook has already been written — by them. The party just needs to listen.
The message: There is not one Latino vote. There are millions of Latinos who vote. And in Texas, it pays to resist the urge to oversimplify.
“Invest in Latinos everywhere. It’s complicated and not complicated,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, founder of the liberal Latino organization, Jolt. “Spend money on Latinos. Speak to them early and make sure you understand the regional and cultural differences.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Jen Ramos. She is a leader of the Texas Democratic Party but not its president. The article also said a conservative grass-roots movement launched College Republicans chapters to recruit candidates for student government. The candidates ran for public office. This version has been updated.