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The myth of the Latino vote

South Texas was supposed to go red in the 2022 midterm elections. What went wrong?

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Nicholas Mendoza for the Deseret News

On a muggy Saturday afternoon in late October, just weeks before the midterms, 200 or so people gathered in a church auditorium in Weslaco, Texas, to hear from three women they hoped would soon represent them in Congress. Mayra Flores was the last of the trio to speak, and it was clear from the standing ovation she got before taking the stage that she was the main attraction. 

Flores greeted her audience in Spanish first, then English. “Buenos dias a todos; good afternoon, everyone,” she beamed. “It’s great to be surrounded by freedom-loving youth,” Flores told the mostly middle-aged audience attending the Texas Youth Summit at the Mid Valley Assembly of God that afternoon. “If you’ve been following the awakening that’s been taking place in the RGV (Rio Grande Valley), you know we’re witnessing something special — not just politically, but spiritually.”

Four months earlier, Flores had won a special election in Texas’ 34th District, making her the first Republican to hold the seat in more than a century, the first Mexican-born woman in Congress, and the first Latina Republican to represent Texas in Washington. Now she was fighting to hold on to the seat. Two other Latina Republicans, Cassy Garcia and Monica De La Cruz, were running in the neighboring 28th and 15th districts. 

A red wave was coming, Flores predicted, but only if everyone in the room did their part. “Take your abuelitas, your aunts, tíos, tías, cousins, you name it,” to the polls, Flores urged the audience. “Spread the chisme; spread the gossip. Tell everyone to go vote on Monday — of course, for Mayra Flores — but to vote conservative.”

At the time it seemed like the odds were in her favor; it seemed possible that the historically blue Rio Grande Valley would flip not just one seat, but three. Polls suggested that Flores, who had initially been projected to lose the seat after winning it in a June special election, was catching up to the Democratic candidate. Henry Cuellar, the longtime Democratic incumbent Garcia was hoping to unseat in the 28th District, narrowly managed to defeat a primary challenger by less than 300 votes. The state legislature had redrawn the 15th District, where De La Cruz was running against a Bernie Sanders-endorsed progressive, to favor Republicans. 

Flores, Garcia and De La Cruz called themselves the “triple threat.” The New York Times called them “far-right Latinas” who represented the new face of the Republican Party. The three women’s pitch to Texas voters was, essentially, that they were just like them: conservatives who speak their language, both literally and figuratively, who support Border Patrol and the police, who go to church and oppose abortion. 

“Dijeron que no íbamos a ganar. Que equivocados estaban,” Flores said at the summit, two days before early voting started in Texas. “They said we weren’t going to win. Oh yeah? We’ll see about that.” Seventeen days later, Flores found her time in Congress short-lived. 

For months, the three women promised that a red wave was not only on the horizon, but also that Latinos — specifically, Latina women — were at the forefront of it. Across the country, pundits predicted a Republican sweep, not only in swing districts but also in traditionally blue states like Oregon. It didn’t happen. Flores lost by more than 8 percentage points; Garcia by 13. De La Cruz was the only one to win her race.

The three women promised that a red wave was not only on the horizon, but also that Latinos were at the forefront of it.

“The RED WAVE did not happen,” Flores tweeted four hours after the polls closed in Texas. “Republicans and Independents stayed home. DO NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT THE RESULTS IF YOU DID NOT DO YOUR PART!”

There have been rumblings of a rightward shift among Latinos for years. Roughly one-third of Latino voters nationwide cast a ballot for Republicans in the 2018 midterms, and Trump made gains among Hispanic voters in 2020 despite his controversial immigration policies, Trump’s gains were especially pronounced in the 34th District, which is 84 percent Hispanic and which President Joe Biden only won by 4 percentage points. But the theory that Latinos will abandon Democrats en masse has yet to come true. Democratic House candidates won 60 percent of the Latino vote in the midterms, according to one CNN exit poll. An estimated 39 percent of Latinos voted for Republicans in House races — an improvement compared to 2020, when that figure was 36 percent, but a modest one at best.

If a political shift is happening and Latino voters really are embracing the Republican Party, albeit slowly, it’s not entirely the result of an organic awakening. In Florida, a former swing state with a significant Hispanic population, Republicans dominated at nearly every level in the midterms, thanks to a combination of conservative effort — in the form of millions of dollars in spending and gerrymandering — and Democratic apathy. But Cuban and Venezuelan voters in Florida have different political motivations from Mexican American voters in south Texas, a nuance that’s often left out of predictions involving a single, unified “Latino vote.” 

Republicans didn’t win the “Latino vote” in south Texas, where the overwhelming majority of voters are Mexican American, nor did they turn the Rio Grande Valley red. They did, however, force Democrats to compete in a part of the country where they had previously taken victory as a given.

Emboldened by Trump’s gains in the region in 2020, Republicans started treating south Texas like a battleground rather than a lost cause. Flores helped run Hispanic outreach for the Hidalgo County Republican Party in the lead-up to the 2020 election. She announced her bid to represent the 34th District in February 2021. Eight months later, the Republican National Committee opened a Hispanic “community center” in the border town of McAllen — one of four outreach centers the RNC has opened in Texas since 2021. “One of the things we heard is that they felt they had been abandoned by Democrats,” RNC spokesperson Alex Kuehler told me. “We’re really trying to reach out to folks who we think are disaffected with the Democrat Party.”

Flores didn’t have to wait until the midterms. Filemon Vela, the Democrat who had represented the district for eight years, had announced in 2021 that he would be retiring at the end of his term. Because of redistricting, Vicente Gonzalez, a Democratic incumbent in the neighboring 15th District, would instead run in the 34th against Flores. Rather than waiting out his term, though, Vela abruptly retired in March, triggering a special election — one Flores was prepared for, and which the Democrats were not.

“They’re claiming the Republican Party is the only Christian party, which it’s not.”

She secured endorsements from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz and raised more than $750,000 in contributions during the special election cycle. Her opponent, Cameron County commissioner Dan Sanchez, raised just $46,000. A few weeks before the election, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC spent a combined $215,000 on ads for Sanchez, but it was too late. 

Flores beat Sanchez by 7 percentage points — a victory some Democrats downplayed by noting turnout had been low and emphasizing the limited tenure of whoever won the special election. “If Republicans spend money on a seat that is out of their reach in November, great,” Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Politico a few weeks before the special election. Local Democrats, however, warned that Flores’ victory signaled the extent to which national Democrats had taken victory in south Texas as a given. “Too many factors were against us, including little to no support from the National Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee,” Sanchez posted on Facebook after conceding.

Part of Flores’ pitch to voters was the notion that Democrats have moved too far to the left, abandoning Latinos in the process — especially in socially conservative south Texas, where voting Democratic was more indicative of tradition than policy preferences. Vila’s resignation and the ensuing special election was an opportunity. Conservatives are building infrastructure in south Texas for the first time. Nikki Haley had a get-out-the-vote rally for Flores and De La Cruz, as did Abbott. “Gov. Abbott’s always in the area — he should get an apartment down here,” Javier Villalobos, McAllen’s first Republican mayor, told me.

“They saw the potential and that’s why they’re investing,” Flores told reporters at the October summit. “With funding, we’re able to spread the message throughout the district.”

The message is largely rooted in religion. Before she was a congressional candidate, Flores was a local conservative influencer who claimed Democrats had stolen the 2020 election and posted conspiracy theories about the January 6, 2021, riots and QAnon on Twitter. As a congressional candidate, her message was more tailored to local conservative concerns, like outlawing abortion and supporting Border Patrol families. 

Pundits assumed Latino politics are shaped by heritage or demography and not personal experience. In 2022, the so-called Latino vote was split along ideological lines.

The yard signs Flores distributes to supporters are emblazoned with “God, Family, Country” in English on one side and in Spanish on the other. Flores borrowed another slogan of hers — “Make America Godly again” — from Luis Cabrera, a pastor in Harlingen who describes himself as Flores’ “spiritual adviser.” Cabrera has introduced Flores to other pastors, who have in turn encouraged their congregations to get involved politically. Cabrera attributes the recent rightward shift in south Texas to evangelical Christians getting more involved in politics. “We truly believe that in these elections, we’re going to see a Godly wave — not a red wave — a Godly wave of revival,” he told me in October. “We’re waking up. We’re now going to get vocal, we’re now going to hit the streets, we’re going to hit the public square.”

At an Oktoberfest-themed fundraiser for the North Cameron County Democrats, attendees chafed at the idea that the Republican Party had a monopoly on Christian identity. “They’re claiming the Republican Party is the only Christian party, which they’re not,” Wandy Cruz-Velazquez, a member of the organization, told me. “There’s many people in this room right here that are Christians, and we’re not Republicans.”

Republicans, several attendees at the Oktoberfest fundraiser told me, were targeting Latino voters in the area. One woman showed me a flyer she had received claiming, in Spanish, that “Joe Biden and his leftist allies are indoctrinating your children into thinking biological sex isn’t real.” It had been delivered to everyone with a Spanish-sounding surname, she told me, and was paid for by America First Legal, an advocacy group founded by former Trump adviser Stephen Miller.

In south Texas, Republicans zeroed in on two messages: Democrats are too far to the left and out of touch with local concerns, and they don’t support — nor can they even understand — the hardworking families that make up your community. It’s a message that resonated at the Texas Youth Summit, where the audience groaned after Kayleigh McEnany reminded them of the time first lady Jill Biden said the Latino community is “as unique as the breakfast tacos” in San Antonio. “I’m their worst nightmare,” Flores said of the Democrats. “I’m pretty sure the Democrat Party is now thinking, ‘Let’s send Mayra back to Mexico.’”

Democrats, Flores and her fellow speakers implied, didn’t care about Latinos — they just wanted their votes. “We’re all about God, family and hard work,” Flores told reporters. 

For Sara Hinojosa Parsons, Flores and her allies represented a threat to her family. “I’m a Hispanic woman with a transgender child. It’s do or die,” Hinojosa Parsons told me at the Northern Cameron County Democrats fundraiser. “What I find most offensive is that they think whoever’s not on the right, whoever’s not Republican, we have no claim to the American flag, we have no claim to God and religion, we have no claim to families.” This was the same assumption pundits made when they claimed Latinos would usher in a red wave: that Latinos are inherently conservative, that their politics are shaped by heritage or demography and not personal experience. In the end, the so-called Latino vote was split along ideological lines.  

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.