Dems continue to underestimate Latino voters support of Republicans

To the extent that Democrats are still banking on Latino voters to carry them to durable national majorities, the recent special election result in the Texas 34th congressional district should be an alarm bell. Joe Biden carried TX-34 by four points in 2020; Filemon Vela, the incumbent Democratic congressman, won it by 13.6. But Vela resigned to work for a lobbying firm in March, triggering a special election to finish out his term — and this time, voters in the South Texas district opted for the Republican candidate by more than seven and a half points.

Mayra Flores, the district’s 36-year-old congresswoman-elect, is the first Republican to win the area in more than 150 years and will be the first Mexican-born congresswoman in American history. When up for election again in November, she will face an uphill battle. The special election occurred in TX-34’s pre-redistricting boundaries, but the November election will be held in a post-redistricting electorate that is more favorable to Democrats — and Flores will be running against a Democratic incumbent for the seat.

But regardless of Flores’s fate this November, her Tuesday night victory portends a major shift in the American political landscape. A whopping 85 percent of the residents in TX-34 are Hispanic, according to 2020 census data. Just 13 percent are white. The district, like much of South Texas, has long been a Democratic stronghold: Biden carried Cameron County, the most populous county in the district, by 13 points in 2020. On Tuesday, Flores won Cameron by about one point.

For months, poll after poll has presaged a rapid rightward shift among Hispanics. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the border communities of South Texas, which have pivoted toward the GOP in overwhelming numbers over the course of the last few years. Five of the six biggest county-level shifts to Trump from 2016 to 2020 were in South Texas. In Texas’s 99 percent Hispanic Starr County, for example, Trump marked a 55-point improvement.

All this represents a serious challenge to a long-standing tenet of elite conventional wisdom — namely, that the growing Hispanic share of the American electorate would invariably push the country leftward. In their seminal The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002), the liberal political scientists John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira argued that immigration-driven demographic trends could bring about “the dawn of a new progressive era.” But the experience of the past few years suggests that the Left’s confidence in this area was at best premature. To their credit, both Judis and Teixeira have backed off their thesis in recent years. Judis has been desperately trying to warn his fellow Democrats about their growing electoral challenges for years. In a 2017 New Republic essay titled “Redoing the Electoral Math,” the writer admitted: “I argued that demographics favored the Democrats. I was wrong.”

The rise of the Hispanic Republican also casts doubt on long-standing elite orthodoxy in GOP circles, too. The Republican National Committee’s famous post–2012 election “autopsy” urged the party to shift left on issues such as immigration to adapt to demographic trends: “Among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” the document concluded. “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”

And yet the rightward shift among Hispanics comes at a time when the GOP is notably hard-line on immigration. In 2020, Hispanic voters in areas such as South Texas and Florida shifted heavily toward Donald Trump, an avatar of border hawkishness. (In Florida’s 58 percent Hispanic Miami-Dade County, for example, Trump improved on his 2016 margins by 22 points.) Although she breaks with the immigration hawks in the party in her support for a legal pathway to citizenship, Flores — who is married to a Border Patrol agent and campaigned at times wearing a Border Patrol hat — made border security a cornerstone of her campaign, declaring that the Rio Grande Valley “is under attack” in one particularly fiery advertisement. The “pro-border security” plank on her website’s “issues” page reads: “Illegal immigration encourages and funds human/child trafficking. I legally immigrated to America when I was six years old. Living in South Texas offers a unique perspective on illegal immigration and how it affects the livelihood of American citizens. We MUST secure our border to keep bad individuals out and to encourage LEGAL immigration.”

Flores’s campaign also constituted a rebuke to progressivism’s woke cultural obsessions and its belief that Hispanics should view themselves as a victimized minority in a hopelessly racist land. Her slogan was, “God, family, country” — values that might be anathema to the people who want everyone to adopt the term “Latinx,” but were commonsensical to many of the voters in her district.

All that said, Republican triumphalism about the Hispanic vote isn’t warranted, either. The Rio Grande Valley is especially fertile ground, and a version of the same trend toward the GOP has been evident in Florida, Arizona, and some northern cities. This is an opening that Republicans need to do everything they can to exploit. That means courting Hispanic voters (who are quite diverse), the way Rick Scott did in his successful statewide races in Florida and the way the 2020 Trump campaign did in the Sunshine State. It also means having an economic agenda that is aspirational and appealing to working-class voters. If TX-34 isn’t necessarily an inflection point, it is an outcome that holds considerable promise.

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