In South Texas, Latino vote up for grabs

By Terry Gutierrez

Although historically Democratic, recent elections show Latino voters have mixed feelings toward progressive and conservative policies and either of the major political parties’ values.

That ambivalence may well play a critical role in the Texas midterm elections for statewide office. The Democratic primary race in House District 28 serves as a reflection of the unpredictability of balloting along the border and South Texas.

That race, in which U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar faced a serious challenge from Jessica Cisneros, was watched nationwide. Cuellar was initially voted into Congress in 2004. This year’s primary was Cisneros’ second time running against Cuellar. In 2020, Cuellar won the race by 2,690 votes. This time around, Cuellar won the primary again, but the margin was much tighter at 289, signaling a shift among Hispanic voters.

Texas District 28 is mapped along parts of the southern border all the way to parts of San Antonio. The district includes Bexar, Wilson, Atascosa, La Salle, McMullen, Webb, Zapata, Starr and Hidalgo counties and is predominantly Hispanic at over 76%.

However, counties clustered along the border, including Hidalgo, Zapata, Webb and Starr, all have a population over 90% Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census data. These counties have poverty rates of almost 20% or higher. Those living without health insurance is 30%.

Cisneros ran her campaign based on “progressive” politics, defending issues like Medicare for All, abortion and immigration rights. Cuellar, who has received criticism for his more conservative stances, has opposed abortion rights and advocated for a “secured border.” The race drew another spotlight after an FBI raid on Cuellar’s Laredo home.

Still, Cuellar led the race in Webb, Starr and Zapata counties. Cisneros, instead, took the lead in the more urban areas of the district including San Antonio and Bexar County.

But the changing politics of the “Latino vote” goes beyond Texas House 28’s Democratic primary. In 2020, an unlikely Zapata County flipped from Democratic to Republican when former President Donald Trump won the election in the historically Democratic county, grabbing attention nationwide.

A  national poll of 1,000 Latino voters conducted by NBC News and Telemundo six weeks before the Nov. 8 election demonstrates Latinos are “divided on President Joe Biden.”

A similar trend of support sparked just an hour away from Zapata in Laredo. That same election year, the Webb County Republican Party held its first ever series of “Trump Trains” around the city in support of Trump’s re-election. In response, the Webb County Democratic Party began hosting its “Ridin’ with Biden” events. Joe Biden prevailed and won the presidential election in Webb County.

Before then, another progressive, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont had won the early voting period for Webb County’s 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Michael Bloomberg came in second, and Joe Biden third.

A  national poll of 1,000 Latino voters conducted by NBC News and Telemundo six weeks before the Nov. 8 election demonstrates Latinos are “divided on President Joe Biden.” According to the poll, Latino voters have sided with Democrats on issues like abortion and health care and Republicans on crime and the economy.

In the Texas gubernatorial election this year Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from El Paso, will face off at the top of the statewide ballot. Based on his campaign communications, Abbott is counting on the same votes that saved Cuellar from his primary challenge.

In South Texas, Abbott has not run away from his stance on abortion, in which he signed Texas’ trigger law making abortions a felony even in cases of rape and incest. On immigration, too, Abbott is counting on Latino support in South Texas despite his controversial billion dollar Operation Lone Star, using National Guard troops and state troopers to round up migrants. In his televised debate with O’Rourke, Abbott promised to continue busing migrants to additional sanctuary cities.

In the November election, Cuellar will face Republican nominee, Cassy Garcia, who most recently served as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s state director. Garcia won the Republican nomination in a runoff with 8,483 votes. Cuellar was named the Democratic nominee with 22,901.

Early voting in Texas begins Oct. 24, and Election Day is Nov. 8.

Teresa (Terry) Gutierrez is a senior Journalism and Media major at the University of Texas Austin.

In the race for the 28th District, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, left, will face Republican nominee Cassy Garcia, who most recently served as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s state director. Photo courtesy of Rep. Cuellar’s office.

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