GOP Targets Vulnerable House Democrats in Texas with Increased Latino Outreach

A Thanksgiving potluck in McAllen.

A Save the Children carnival and toy drive in Laredo.

A cryptocurrency workshop and ugly sweater Christmas party with Folklorico dancing in San Antonio.

These community events aimed at Latinos in south Texas this holiday season are not being held by a nonprofit, or even by Democrats, but by the Republican National Committee (RNC) in partnership with local Republican groups.

The RNC says its community centers are part of a national, multi-million dollar effort to reach out to minority communities at the local level to engage African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Pacific Americans and Indian-Americans.

Of the 10 such community centers the RNC has opened up nationwide, four are in Texas, with more to come in 2022.

The growing Republican footprint in Latino communities in south Texas comes after Donald Trump garnered outsized support along border communities last year, even flipping some counties that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Republicans may be seizing a very real opportunity ahead of the 2022 midterm races. A Wall Street Journal poll last week showed Hispanic voters evenly split between both parties, with 37% saying they would support a Democratic congressional candidate and 37% saying they would support a Republican, with 22% undecided.

"We're really excited about what we're seeing with the movement of Hispanics towards the GOP," Alex Kuehler, the RNC's southwest communications director told Newsweek.

To the Republican Party, 2020 improvements were the impetus for "an opportunity to get down there and make inroads and get to know the people in these communities."

Right now, those inroads include 20 full-time staff members across Texas, 477 Republican leadership trainings, and 408,000 voters contacted, with volunteers making 98% of those calls.

Traditional outreach — phone calls and door knocking — will always be an important part of engaging voters. But Latino Republicans say that what is critical in reaching Latino voters the GOP sees as newly persuadable is taking time to build genuine relationships.

Then, and only then, can the conversation turn to politics.

"The secret sauce for the Hispanic community, whether they're Mexican or Puerto Rican, when you watch those countries mobilize voters back home, it's about relationships and trust, the word is confianza," said Artemio Muñiz, chair of the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans.

And that means a change of approach from past methods.

"The Republican Party's old way of doing things is a guy in a suit and tie who lives on other side of the tracks doing a press conference at the safest country club, but he was never in the community," Muñiz said. "That doesn't work."

But now, with canned food drives across the state, events for moms on how to get politically involved, job fairs, and even a Second Amendment gun safety class for beginners, Republicans are increasingly meeting the community where they are, including in urban areas like San Antonio.

Daniel Garza, the executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, which has successfully been doing similar work for years, much to the chagrin of Democrats, echoed Muñiz without being prompted.

"You show that you care by being part of the community, engaging with the community, and creating that familiarity," he told Newsweek. "It's not just about connecting. The second step is, 'Why are my ideas better?' and to have standing, confianza. Creating that confianza with the community that honestly they have done a horrible job of in the past."

Muñiz said that while the GOP has been MIA in the past, their relationship building is now having an impact.

"It helps when the other side is dropping the ball," he said, of the feeling the Biden administration is lost at sea and has bumbled the border. "That's why Republicans are having some success in these counties."

If the 2020 election and performance in south Texas weren't enough to get Democrats to pay attention, the difficulty of the 2022 midterm landscape should, with Democrats like Representatives Vicente Gonzalez and Henry Cuellar facing reelection.

After Republicans redrew his district with an assist by a former Democrat who has since switched parties, Gonzalez decided to not to run in the 15th Congressional District and instead run in the safer 34th, which now includes his residence and hundreds of thousands of his current constituents.

He isn't too worried about 2020 election results or increased Hispanic engagement by Republicans.

"I really feel it was an anomaly," he told Newsweek. "I see it more and more working crowds in south Texas that they feel they may be getting duped."

With the recent Census cutting funding to south Texas and Governor Greg Abbott not expanding Medicaid during the pandemic, his region has been the most medically impacted, Gonzalez said. He called a new restrictive election law a "voter suppression bill" that will effect voters along the border for the first time.

Gonzalez isn't running away from being a Democrat. He believes voters will begin to see the tangible benefits of the American Rescue Plan and an infrastructure law he thinks will lead to shovels in the ground by April or May, plenty of time before the election barrels closer.

But he did lament having to be identified by party.

"I'm one of the most independent members of Congress, a moderate and bipartisan, and I hate that we have to run with a 'D' or 'R' on our lapel."

"We should run with an 'A," since we're all Americans," he added.

But Gonzalez' fellow moderate, Democrat Representative Henry Cuellar, told Newsweek he has noticed that Republicans have juiced their Latino outreach, including the new office in his district.

"They have RNC centers in Laredo and other places," he said, noting that sometimes their outreach is uncontested, and "in phone calls with the Democratic national party I tell them, 'Y'all need to be paying attention to south Texas.'"

Along the border, Cuellar said, Republicans have used two things: that Democrats were going to take away oil and gas jobs, and that they support defunding the police, which is anathema to Hispanics who work as sheriffs, police, or for the border patrol.

"When they think you're going to take their jobs away, it has an impact on people's way of thinking," he said.

When he talks to voters in his district, which is 78% Hispanic, he stresses he is not for open borders, will defend oil and gas jobs, and supports money for health care and education. He says one danger for Democrats is that their firewall in Texas has always been urban areas, while Republicans run up the score in rural areas.

But the GOP may be trying to change that.

"Now they're not shy about going into a Democratic stronghold," he said, calling it a "concerted" effort.

Mayra Flores, a Republican who is running in the 34th district against Gonzalez, said she was born in Mexico, worked in cotton fields until the age of 13 to buy her own clothes and school supplies, and she understands the struggle of the people in south Texas.

She said her father has voted for Democrats for all of his life, but she came to realize their pro-life conservative values that put God and family first aligned more with the Republican Party.

She's not getting financial support from the RNC, she told Newsweek, but knows Latinos will be key to winning not only the 34th district, which is 84% Hispanic, but Texas for years to come.

"If we want to keep this state Republican, keep it red, we must invest in the Hispanic community," she said.

But she avoided a hard partisan sell.

"I'm Republican," she added, "but I'm running for the people of District 34 regardless of what they vote for."

While the RNC's Kuehler wasn't prepared to release budget figures yet, he said the increased outreach is working, and Democrats are in trouble in south Texas.

"Democrats have taken this area for granted for a very long time," he said. "We've been hearing that sentiment for a very long time."

"We haven't seen movement from Democrats, especially national Democrats, to shore up the vote down there, and we're on the offensive, hiring staff," Kuehler said. "A year out, I think we have them on their heels."

latino vote
Republicans increasingly see the Latino vote in Texas as an opportunity, particularly along the border, and are putting resources into Hispanic engagement in cities in south Texas. MARK FELIX/AFP/Getty Images