A local parade makes its way through Main Street in Rio Grande City, Texas in February. In 2020, former President Trump won 47 percent of the Starr County vote, up from 19 percent in 2016.
A local parade makes its way through Main Street in Rio Grande City, Texas in February. In 2020, former President Trump won 47 percent of the Starr County vote, up from 19 percent in 2016. (Christopher Lee/for The Washington Post)

Republicans make gains in the Rio Grande Valley ahead of Texas primary

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RIO GRANDE CITY, Tex. — Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, the senior Democrat on this patch of the U.S.-Mexican border, likes to say he remembers when he could count local Republicans on a single hand. But times are changing in the shrub lands of southern Texas.

For the first time in local memory, the local GOP has an office on Main Street, with a tent staffed outside the county courthouse to woo early voters. Eight candidates have qualified for the ballot in Tuesday’s county primary elections, up from one or none in recent elections.

An alarmed Vera, who has held office for 24 years, has been forced to look inward. He asked county workers in January to advertise in the local paper about how the two-party primary system works, since so few had seen one before. He has begun to reconsider the insularity of the Democratic Party structure.

“It’s our fault,” Vera explained this month, as he leaned back on his cushioned leather office chair, which Texas state prisoners make for county judges. “We never gave them an opportunity to really participate in the party.”

Similar Republican uprisings have been sweeping across nearby counties in the Rio Grande Valley, born of frustration with one-party rule, the influence of Republican state leaders and the shifting brands of the national parties. For as long as anyone alive can remember, South Texas has been a conservative Democratic stronghold — pro-gun, pro-fossil fuels, antiabortion and suspicious of cosmopolitan values. But only recently has the overwhelmingly Hispanic population, in a place where government meetings are still conducted in a seamless flow between English and Spanish, begun to look seriously at the Republican Party.

A turning point came in 2020, when President Donald Trump won 47 percent of the Starr County vote, up from 19 percent in 2016. About 6,000 more Republican voters suddenly appeared at the ballot box, even as the Democratic numbers remained roughly the same. In three neighboring counties of the Rio Grande Valley, the vote margin shifted toward the GOP by at least 10 percentage points.

The reverberations have been enough to rattle the region’s entire political system, which has historically incentivized the relatives of school and government employees to support the local Democratic Party.

“I have always measured my words because we have to live here,” said Derric Leo Treviño, a 13th generation Texan running this year as a Republican for a Starr County justice of the peace seat. “It’s ingrained that we keep our politics to ourselves because they may fire your wife or your cousin. But Trump made it okay to admit you’re a Republican. He started the fire.”

A popular state House member, Ryan Guillen, flipped parties in November and picked up Trump’s endorsement in his bid for reelection. Trump has also endorsed Monica De La Cruz, who is running for an open congressional seat previously held by a Democrat, which stretches north from the border to San Antonio. Republicans are hopeful that San Benito school board member Janie Lopez will be able to pick up another state House seat farther east, after the redrawing of district lines.

National Republicans hope that another strong year in South Texas will further undermine the longtime Democratic belief that demographic change in the nation — specifically the shrinking share of white voters — would structurally shift the partisan divide in their favor. Instead, recent elections have reinforced that Hispanic voters represent a distinct set of regional voting blocs, still favoring Democrats on the whole but with clear openness to Republican persuasion on economic and cultural issues.

Democrats at the state and national level say they are redoubling their efforts, largely by returning to the sort of in-person canvassing that Democrats abandoned in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Latino community is not a monolith, and you have to talk to them early like they are swing voters,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), the chair of BOLD Pac, a group that has been helping Democrats train and field Hispanic candidates. “We need to make sure that we educate Latinos so that they know what the Democratic Party stands for. They know what the Republican Party stands for.”

Nationwide, Trump’s strength among Hispanic voters grew by 8 points between 2016 and 2020, according to a report by the Democratic data firm Catalist. But the gains were not evenly spread. In Arizona, for instance, the Democratic vote share fell only 5 points, allowing Biden to win the state with a strong majority of Hispanics, most of whom trace their family roots back to Mexico. In Florida, where more Hispanics hail from Puerto Rico, Cuba and Venezuela, Democratic support fell 14 points, pushing the state out of the party’s reach.

In Texas, Hispanic Democratic support fell 9 points statewide, the firm said.

“This to me now really feels like 1980 with Reagan, where you just suddenly saw huge areas go in a different direction,” said Craig Murphy, a Republican campaign consultant who works in South Texas. “I would call this a realignment. I would say it is permanent.”

Republicans on the border have benefited from external factors — an influx of new law enforcement jobs to work on the border, a booming oil and gas industry and new Republican-drawn district lines, which pressured Guillen to switch parties. In 2020, thanks to a Republican-backed state law, voters found for the first time that they could no longer vote for an entire party ticket with one hole punch, eliminating a shortcut that had benefited Democratic candidates.

Republicans have also invested heavily in the Rio Grande Valley. The Republican National Committee now operates three “Hispanic Community Centers” in South Texas, including hubs in Laredo and McAllen, where the party hosts movie nights, toy drives and political meetings.

“We never packed up at the end of the cycle,” said RNC communications director Danielle Alvarez. “We tried to stay in those communities for the long term and that’s where these great candidates are coming from.”

Democratic strategists have been impressed by the effort.

“What Republicans have done is they are being smart about recruiting,” said Mike Carrera, another local campaign consultant, originally from Starr County, who works mainly with Democrats. “At the end of the day, I just think that people have choices now. I think Republicans are going to just keep pressing.”

Before the 2018 election, a Republican outfit, Project Red Texas, run by Gov. Greg Abbott’s former campaign manager Wayne Hamilton, recruited 54 GOP candidates at the county level or lower along the border. This year, in a smaller county footprint, the group helped train or fund the filing fees for 135 candidates, about half of whom are Hispanic, he said.

Hamilton credits the chaotic border, the South Texas oil and gas industry and the cultural alienation from national Democrats as the reason for Republican growth. But there are also local frustrations over the generational Democratic political machine.

“There is no question that people are tired of the patronage and tired of the idea that this is royal government and we kind of hand off our position when we are done to our kid or our grandkids,” Hamilton said.

Outside the county courthouse in Rio Grande City, it was clear those tensions had galvanized the new Republican opposition, which set up a table under a camping canopy across from the much more elaborate setup of their Democratic opponents, with smoked meat and free chicken plates to greet arrivals as they approached to vote.

“This is a historic moment for Starr County because we are offering people a choice,” said David Porras, a GOP candidate for county commissioner, who was elected to county office as a Democrat years ago.

During the 2018 Republican primary, only 15 voters in Starr County chose Republican ballots, according to state records. After the first eight days of early voting this month, 779 had pulled Republican ballots, according to the county elections department, making a public affirmation that some said they have previously feared would ostracize them in the community. Democrats had received 3,817 ballots.

The decision about which side to support has been agonizing for many county residents for whom personal relationships are more important than partisan politics. Their ballot choice becomes a public record, and they can vote only for candidates from that party in the primaries. Several local candidates said they had heard from voters who are choosing to skip the primary altogether and wait for the general election to avoid having to disclose their affiliation and preferences.

Teachers and county workers were among those staying away, those candidates said.

“Most of these folks on the Democratic side have been my friends for years, we grew up together and so, it’s a challenge,” said Guillen, the recent Republican convert and Trump endorsee, as he campaigned near the county courthouse. “They’ll call me and say ‘Hey, we’re going to stick with you, but we’re worried because we won’t be able to vote for this person.’ ”

Fred Lopez, a Democrat and family friend of Guillen’s, said he is not yet sure how he will vote, even though the sticker on the rear window of his truck says, “Con Guillen, Estamos Bien,” which translates roughly to “We are doing great with Guillen.”

“The red tide is trying to push Starr County to go red, which is going to be impossible,” he said. “The right wing and left wing are pushing to the extremes and not coming together. It’s dividing us. But a friendship is stronger than a political foe.”

As the Republican candidates looked for converts, Jaime Alvarez pulled up in his giant black pickup, left it to idle in the street and walked over to greet Porras, the Republican county commissioner candidate. The two are longtime friends, and it was Alvarez’s brother, a Democrat, who allowed the Republicans to set up on the corner of his law office building for the election.

“I always thought we would become a two-party system, but like in 2030. It came earlier,” said Alvarez, a former Democrat county commissioner and precinct chair, chuckling. “Having two parties keeps you honest. It’s healthy. I am probably more conservative than these guys.”

Vera, who is running again for the highest office in the county, is facing a challenge from Republican Maria Yvette Hernandez, a business owner who is trying to shake up the local power structure. His daughter is running to chair the local Democratic Party.

“This county won’t flip red yet,” he says. “At least not in my lifetime.”

Republican candidate Treviño pointed over to the Democratic tent across the parking lot. That’s where his father’s first cousin, Democrat Dickie Gonzalez, was sharing a tent with Cecilia Hernandez, who was greeting voters in her quest to take Treviño on in the general election.

A first-time candidate, Hernandez is eager to breathe new life into the local party even if she was mortified by the public display when she first saw her photo on a campaign sign in town. There’s a feeling, she said, that voters in Starr County and elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley are yearning for something different in local governance and don’t much care which letter, D or R, follows the candidate’s name.

“We haven’t had change in a long time,” Hernandez said. “It’s okay to have different people with different ideas.”

The slogan on her campaign sign: “Change is good.”