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Democrats aim to hold off GOP gains in South Texas

The party is working to fix last cycle’s flawed messaging and campaign infrastructure—but it still has a ways to go.

In this July 24, 2014 file photo, a bend in the Rio Grande is viewed from a Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter on patrol over in Mission, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool, File)
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Mini Racker and Erin Covey
Oct. 11, 2021, 7:42 p.m.

Part One of Two.

Despite all the Republican talk about immigration and the border, the Southern Texas districts that abut Mexico have remained more blue than not. But cracks are beginning to show in Democrats’ performance there. And if Democrats can’t figure out how to tailor their message to the rural Latinos who live along the border, that failure could complicate their dream of turning the state purple.

In 2020, Republicans picked up a significant share of voters in the three congressional districts along Texas’s southern tip, and former President Trump flipped eight majority-Latino counties that Hillary Clinton had carried in 2016. Since then, the Republican National Committee has opened community centers in the border towns of Laredo and McAllen, along with San Antonio.

Those investments come as Democrats attempt to address missteps they made last year. Strategists of both parties attributed Republicans’ 2020 gains in South Texas to flawed Democratic messaging, especially misunderstandings of voters’ Tejano identities and the region’s more conservative bent.

“For the longest time, we've viewed South Texas as Latino Texas,” said Abhi Rahman, who served as communications director for the Texas Democratic Party last cycle. “But what we realized is that South Texas is actually rural Texas.”

Webb County Democratic Party Chair Sylvia Bruni also criticized Democrats for not adjusting their message to South Texas voters. She said the phone call script that local organizers were directed to use was a generic, “Hi, I'm Sylvia. I'm a Democrat. I understand you're a Democrat. I'm going to vote for Joe Biden. Are you going to vote for Joe Biden?”

“We never got any kind of substantive messaging platform or guidance, because the messaging for Laredo, Webb County, is not going to be the messaging for Dallas,” Bruni said. “It might not even be the messaging for McAllen. It's going to have to be tailored to fit the needs and the interests of our people.”

Last cycle, strategists said, some Democrats’ positions on cultural concerns clashed with the party’s relentless focus in battleground districts on so-called “kitchen-table issues” like jobs and the economy. Voters in South Texas came home from work at the sheriff’s department or Customs and Border Protection to hear talk of defunding the police. Watching the final presidential debate, viewers wondered whether good jobs in oil and gas would survive Joe Biden’s pronouncement that he would “transition” away from the oil industry.

Colin Strother, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked for Rep. Henry Cuellar for 18 years until this summer, suggested that the national party has moved too far left for many South Texans.

“At one point the Left was talking about boycotting Goya,” Strother said. “I'm married to a Latina. I've got a better chance of boycotting indoor plumbing than I do Goya in my household.”

He pointed to Beto O’Rourke’s embrace of a mandatory gun buyback as a policy that would not go over well among folks for whom hunting a deer for dinner might be an important supplement to a $9-an-hour job.

“If a rattlesnake is threatening your livestock, thoughts and prayers aren't going to do shit,” he added. “You need a double-barrel 20 gauge to handle that situation. And in most of that area that we're talking about where the so-called Trump gains came from, you may be 20 to 40 minutes from a law enforcement professional. And during that time, you are the law.”

Strother and other Democrats emphasized that unique personal brands and authentic connections with constituents have been key for the Democratic House members who hold the South Texas seats, and will continue to matter this cycle.

“Democrats running in that area are going to have to make sure that they're explaining, ‘Hey, I'm a Democrat. I'm not like those guys. I'm like you,’” Strother said.

In conversations with National Journal, both parties stressed the importance of a strong ground game in South Texas. According to the RNC, it has already installed its largest-ever number of field staff and minority outreach staff in Texas at this point in the cycle, though the committee did not share exact numbers. For their part, Democrats say their party has ground to make up in South Texas after decades of failing to prioritize it.

Bruni said that the county party has gotten “zero” investment from the national party at this point, though they have worked with O’Rourke’s group Powered by People on organizing efforts.

“The fact that the national Republican Party is putting out money tells me they’re serious,” Bruni said, referencing the RNC’s community centers. “And so it would do our national Democratic Party—it would do them good to pay attention.” At the same time, Bruni said she hadn’t witnessed any activity from the community center in Laredo and was skeptical the centers would be effective.

Strother had a similar perspective about the national Democratic Party’s shortcomings, which he suggested have not been corrected this year.

“The Texas Democratic Party, quite frankly, has done an absolutely terrible job of building our standing in that community,” he said. “They've made virtually zero investment, zero staffing, zero infrastructure, for the 25 years I have been running campaigns in Texas. They don't prioritize that area. So, guess what? The Republicans started paying attention there. They started spending money there. They started messaging there. And we lost some ground.”

As they court South Texas voters, Democrats are emphasizing efforts to address the pandemic and protect jobs.

“Under Donald Trump, Republicans gifted corporations billions of dollars in tax cuts at the expense of the middle class, and created new incentives to ship jobs away from our country—it’ll take a lot more than a photo op to make Latino voters forget that,” wrote Maria Martinez, the Democratic National Committee’s Latinx Coalition director, in a statement to National Journal.

The DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not answer questions about the exact number of organizers they have in South Texas, although national Democrats did suggest they are making their earliest and biggest investments in the region. They are especially enthused about getting back to door-knocking in the region after a pandemic-induced pause which may have put them at a disadvantage in 2020.

Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa (AP Photo/LM Otero) ASSOCIATED PRESS

Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, told National Journal that he has “had conversations” with the DNC about investments in staffing. “I understand that there's going to be funding coming through within the next few weeks,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state party currently has two staffers in the Laredo area and is planning on hiring more in South Texas. Hinojosa also noted that with national Republicans targeting South Texas House districts now, he’s expecting much more investment in the area compared to 2020, when the nine targeted Texas districts were concentrated in the Houston and Dallas suburbs.

“There's going to be a huge DCCC investment, along with the state Democratic Party, both in terms of voter registration, voter engagement, and get-out-the-vote programs … the likes of which we've never had before, because there was never a need to do that,” he said.

“We’re on course to resume safe in-person organizing to reach South Texas communities and mobilize our voters,” wrote DCCC Regional Organizing Director José Monsivais in a statement to National Journal.

Redistricting is likely to affect Republicans’ chances in the region, with a proposed map shoring up Texas’s 28th and 34th Districts for Democrats and making the 15th more competitive. If it goes into effect, Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, currently representing the 15th, has said he’ll consider running in the safer 34th, where Rep. Filemon Vela is retiring. That would set up what could be a bellwether open-seat contest in the 15th District, which would become more difficult for Democrats to hold.

But regardless of how the House shakes out, holding off the GOP in South Texas will be key in Democrats’ quest to add the Lone Star State permanently to their column.

“That’s the whole game,” Strother said. “We turn Texas blue—pick five swing states. You want Florida? Let's say Florida, New Hampshire. OK, Pennsylvania—let's say Pennsylvania, North Carolina. … We turn Texas blue, we never have to go to those states again.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this story stated that the state Democratic Party in Texas has one staffer in the Laredo area. The party has since clarified that there are two.

Part Two in Wednesday's edition will examine how SB 8, which banned abortion in Texas, might impact elections, particularly the primary in the 28th District. Rep. Cuellar, the only remaining House Democrat who regularly bucks his party on abortion rights, faces a rematch with Jessica Cisneros.

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