For Republicans, winning Hispanic voters will be a bigger fight than South Texas

Straight Edge barbershop owner Virginia Murillo discusses how she has shifted her political views to those that align more with the GOP. (Jaime R. Carrero For The Texas Tribune, Jaime R. Carrero For The Texas Tribune)

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FORT WORTH — Fernando Florez still strongly believes that Hispanic Texans should stand with Democrats.

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The 81-year-old community activist who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and settled in Fort Worth said his parents backed Democrats because they benefited from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s job-creating New Deal policies. He recalled joining his father as a teenager harvesting crops in Wyoming and Colorado, and he still views Democrats as the party of working people.

But he sees how other Hispanic voters, including those who immigrated more recently, are embracing Republicans.

“They want to peddle the idea that the Republican Party is good because lots of Hispanics are small-business people; that’s true,” Florez said during an interview on his porch in South Hemphill Heights, a heavily Hispanic neighborhood in Fort Worth. “But with what the Democrats have done for working people, labor unions and all of those, it’s clear that’s the party to be for.”

He said he plans to support the Democratic slate in this election down to the local level, which features unusually competitive races for county offices.

Florez’s comments reflect what has long been the case in Texas politics: The Hispanic vote is not a monolith, and parties that treat it that way do so at their own risk. Nonetheless, Republican and Democratic candidates alike this election cycle have targeted Hispanic voters as a key demographic they hope to win over. And for good reason: Hispanic Texans are now the largest demographic group in Texas, in addition to being one of the fastest growing.

Much attention has been given to Hispanic voters in South Texas, where the GOP is poised for history-making breakthroughs. But less than a third of Texas’ Hispanic voters live in South Texas or in border counties. Nearly half of Hispanic Texans live in the left-leaning metros of Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, where polling shows those Latino voters still overwhelmingly back Democrats.

Gov. Greg Abbott declared in April that he would win Texas’ Hispanic vote over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke. Abbott got 44% of the Hispanic vote in 2014 and 42% in 2018, according to exit polls published by national media outlets.

His campaign said they are confident that their message is resonating with Hispanic voters regardless of where they live in Texas.

“In this particular election environment, the concerns of Hispanics who live in Houston or McAllen or Del Rio or in Midland or in Lubbock or in Amarillo or in Paint Creek, Texas — it’s the exact same top three issues: crime, inflation and the border,” Abbott’s chief strategist, Dave Carney, said during a call with reporters Tuesday.

Fernando Florez, a long time Democratic activist discusses the shift of Hispanic voters in Tarrant County and Texas from his Hemphill neighborhood home in Fort Worth. Texas has had an uptick in Democratic sentiment, but a shift from the Democratic Party to the GOP could ensure control of the state by the GOP. Oct. 6, 2022.

Fernando Florez, a longtime Democratic activist, discusses the shift of Hispanic voters in Tarrant County and Texas at his home in the South Hemphill Heights neighborhood of Fort Worth. Credit: Jamie R. Carrero for The Texas Tribune

O’Rourke has been beating Abbott among Hispanic voters in virtually every poll, sometimes by double digits, though a University of Texas poll released Friday found them tied among likely Hispanic voters. Abbott’s campaign has argued the public polls are not accurately gauging the Hispanic vote but has not provided any alternative numbers.

State Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, dismissed the idea that Abbott could win half of Latino votes.

“In every Latino family, you’ll have two Democrats and a tio loco, a crazy uncle, and it just hasn’t changed,” Anchía said at The Texas Tribune Festival in September. “Latinos are not dumb. We’ve seen what’s happened since 2016, how we’ve been singled out. And every time Republicans get in trouble they talk about scary brown people coming over the border.”

Republicans acknowledge that Hispanic voters in South Texas appear to be leaning their way more quickly than elsewhere. But Republicans are already in power across the state, they argue, and even a small shift in the Hispanic vote makes the GOP more secure, while creating cause for alarm for Texas Democrats.

Tarrant County

Tarrant County has experienced rapid growth since 2000. That growth was driven by a huge increase in Latino residents, who went from 20% to 30% of the county population during that period. This corresponded with a shift in the county electorate toward Democrats, culminating in President Joe Biden’s 1,800-vote victory there in 2020, the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the county since 1964.

Tarrant County College professor Peter Martinez cautioned that does not mean that Latinos are entirely responsible for the county’s liberal shift, as nationally, an urban-rural divide has increasingly defined the Democratic and Republican parties.

“The north and south sides of Fort Worth are historic Latino or Mexican parts of town. … That population does lean to the left, and growth there represents an expansion of the Democratic Party,” Martinez said. “I would also argue that more of the white population is also leaning to the left in recent years because of people coming in from out of state.”

In interviews with a dozen Hispanic voters in Tarrant County, many cited deep cultural ties to the Democratic Party, which their families have supported for generations. But there was also a sense of apathy, and at times party resentment, that left some voters moving further to the right.

Virginia Murillo, 45, said she used to vote for Democrats in part because she was following the lead of her parents, who emigrated from Mexico. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Murillo, who has owned the Straight Edge hair salon in Fort Worth for 14 years, began questioning that allegiance. She said Republicans appeared to better understand the needs of small businesses struggling with operating restrictions.

“That’s when I finally became aware that views aligned with them,” Murillo said. “I never really thought that until one of my friends pointed it out.”

Murillo said she has also realized her religious views may more closely align with the Republican Party.

Despite steadily becoming a larger share of Tarrant County’s population, Hispanic people have had little political representation here. There has never been a Hispanic member of Congress representing the county and there is just one Fort Worth city council member.

Ricardo Avitia poses for a portrait at his brother Rudy’s barbershop The Barber, in the Hemphill neighborhood in Fort Worth.

Ricardo Avitia at his brother Rudy’s barbershop, The Barber, in the South Hemphill Heights neighborhood in Fort Worth. Credit: Jamie R. Carrero for The Texas Tribune

Ricardo Avitia, 43, said he worries the Democratic Party takes Latinos for granted and does not do enough to ensure they can grow their own political power.

“When we see Democrats not taking our communities into consideration — communities that they’re historically supposed to be representing, then there’s an issue with that,” Avitia said at the barber shop owned by his younger brother, Rudy.

Avitia said he considers himself an independent and seeks out candidates to support who can represent his interests on issues like zoning, infrastructure and economic development. Despite his interest in politics, he does not plan to cast a ballot in this election.

“Parties don’t represent us,” he said. “It’s pick your poison.”

Florez, the devoted Democrat, said Hispanics would be much more motivated to vote if there were Hispanic candidates on the ballot.

The county will likely elect its first Hispanic county commissioner this year: Republican Manny Ramirez. The Fort Worth police officer and local police union president is running in heavily conservative Precinct 4, where the incumbent Republican commissioner is retiring after 30 years.

Ramirez said he does not focus much on his Hispanic identity in the majority-Anglo precinct and said his campaign pledge to ensure infrastructure keeps up with the county’s rapid growth is broadly appealing to voters there. He acknowledged that Democrats have historically captured the majority of Hispanic voters but he said the Republican Party’s social and economic principles may be a better fit for their values.

“It’s not about politics, it’s about conservative policies that actually produce results,” Ramirez said. “What types of policies make economic conditions much better for work and investing and everything else Hispanics have to concern themselves with? It’s the same issues that other Americans have to deal with.”

Republican optimism

Republicans are making a massive push down-ballot in South Texas. They are targeting three U.S. House seats there, a state Senate seat, at least one state House seat and a host of local offices that are currently held by Democrats.

While Biden’s South Texas numbers set off the regional offensive, Republicans further helped themselves through redistricting last year. Republicans in the Legislature redrew one of the congressional districts to be favorable to the GOP — and most controversially, they created the state House seat in a narrow, late-night vote that drew fierce pushback from neighboring Democratic lawmakers.

Still, redistricting does not tell the full story. In one of the congressional districts that Republicans ostensibly shored up for Democrats — the 34th District — U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, has found himself in a race that has been labeled a toss-up. If the new 34th District had been in place in 2020, Biden would have carried it by 16 percentage points.

Republicans have long seen Hispanic voters in South Texas as more gettable. They view them as more culturally conservative and focused on economic issues — and perhaps more akin to the average rural voter than the average urban or suburban voter.

But there is a more timely theory, too: Republicans are engaging South Texas more than ever before, and their investment this election cycle — well into the eight figures — is paying off.

The biggest public poll of likely Hispanic voters in Texas so far, with 625 respondents, found that “Brownsville/McAllen” was easily the most competitive region in the governor’s race, with O’Rourke leading Abbott by 11 points there. O’Rourke routed Abbott in the poll by at least double that margin in every other region that was broken out beyond the Rio Grande Valley.

“There is a little something going on down there,” said Brad Coker, the pollster whose firm, Mason-Dixon, did the survey for Telemundo. “But are we looking at this massive tidal wave [of Latinos shifting statewide]? … Eh, I think that’s a real stretch.”

Pollsters warn that such regional breakdowns should be treated with extra caution given that the sample sizes are usually so small and thus subject to wide variation.

But more recently, a Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation poll also revealed regional differences in the statewide Hispanic vote. The survey of 468 likely Hispanic voters found O’Rourke leading by over 20 points in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas, but losing to Abbott in the San Antonio area and running a narrower 10 points ahead of him in South Texas.

Democratic State Representative Romero Ramon Romero poses for a portrait at Los Zarapes Restaurant in north Fort Worth. Romero stated the key to Hispanic victory in the upcoming Midterm elections is being an activist in the community not simply proposing legislation. The support from the community must be achieved by canvassing and knocking on doors of the voters you want to represent. Oct. 6, 2022.

State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, at Los Zarapes Restaurant in Fort Worth’s North Side. Romero stated the key to winning over Hispanic voters in the upcoming midterm election is being an activist in the community, not simply proposing legislation. Credit: Jaime R. Carrero for The Texas Tribune

In state Rep. Ramon Romero’s view, Democrats can still count on robust support from Latinos in the largest urban areas in Texas. The Fort Worth Democrat said despite a concerted push by Republicans to court Latinos in this year’s midterm elections, the fast-growing voting bloc still mostly sees the Democratic Party as representing the interests of working people.

And Romero said the party is continuing to turn out voters who haven’t traditionally participated. He recounted how his campaign recently helped a man with a criminal history register to vote who thought he was ineligible.

“So he votes and he comes out crying,” Romero said. “Those are the kind of people I see now at the polling booth all the time. And they’re not voting Republican; they’re voting Democrat.”

Chris Wilson is a GOP pollster who has worked for Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. He is also currently working in a number of South Texas races.

“It’s certainly the case that the Latino vote in the cities isn’t moving toward Republicans as fast as the vote in South Texas and among other rural Hispanics is. But it also doesn’t have to,” Wilson said. “Texas is already a red state.”

“Democrats can’t afford to trade ‘recently arrived in a few suburbs’ for Hispanic votes in a state like Texas,” Wilson said. “Combining South Texas and other working-class Hispanics with rural voters and voters in more conservative suburbs makes Republicans even more secure statewide while putting a whole new region in play at the legislative and congressional level.”

Correction, Oct. 24, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Hispanic Texans as a racial demographic group. Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race.

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