Joshua Partlow The Washington Post
RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas — Ruben Villarreal knew he was different, and it had nothing to do with his curlicue mustache. The Latino tire-shop owner with the ten-gallon hat had been mayor of this border town for several years before he dared to discuss his political affiliation. He felt like a “cactus around balloons.”
“It’s not easy being Republican,” he said, “when everybody’s a Democrat.”
As long as anyone can remember, the South Texas counties that make up the Rio Grande Valley have been two things: Hispanic and blue-as-the-big-sky Democrat. In Hidalgo County, along the Rio Grande, the locals say a Republican hasn’t won a countywide office in recent memory. Even though Republican governors have led Texas for two decades, their best showing among Hispanic voters was in 1998 with George W. Bush, who didn’t even win half.
But this year, Republican nominee Greg Abbott, the state’s attorney general, has set out to break Bush’s record by making the rapidly growing Hispanic vote — and the Rio Grande Valley — central to his campaign. The day after Abbott announced his candidacy in San Antonio, he was in McAllen, on the Mexican border. He has visited the area 14 times during the campaign, most recently for his first debate with the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Wendy Davis.
He has also aired six Spanish-language TV ads, including one featuring his Latina mother-in-law that premiered during the Mexico-Brazil World Cup match in June. (“His values are our values. Faith, family and honesty,” his sister-in-law Rosie Phalen says in the ad.)
Davis’ team has also aggressively courted Hispanics, with radio and television ads, a Spanish-language website and 13 visits to the valley.
The situation has surprised locals who are accustomed to being a sideshow in big elections.
“This is the first time in my memory . . . that we’ve had the interest of the politicians,” said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, who has endorsed Abbott and whose office is nonpartisan. “For years, the Democrats kind of took our county for granted, and the Republicans didn’t think they’d make any inroads.”
Abbott’s outreach reflects the growing power of the Hispanic vote in Texas, as well as an effort to pre-empt the Davis campaign’s characterization of him as anti-immigrant. But in this heavily Hispanic area, he’s still at a disadvantage.
The Davis campaign has four times the staff in the Rio Grande Valley and endorsements from more than 70 local leaders. Even though she didn’t fare well in the primary in South Texas, Davis received far more total votes than Abbott. A recent poll showed her leading by more than 2 to 1 among Hispanic voters.
“They can talk all they want about how they’re making a push to garner the support of the Hispanic community, but the Hispanic community appreciates and understands the strides we’ve made as a community come from legislation from Democratic Party elected officials, going all the way back to Kennedy,” said Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia. “All of our elected officials, school boards and city commissions are Hispanic, and right now we have the great majority supporting Wendy Davis.”
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Republicans may have trouble winning over Hispanic voters, but Democrats have trouble winning the state. The last Democrat in the governor’s mansion was Ann Richards, who left office in January 1995. The Texas legislature is about 60 percent Republican. The national parties tend to spend their money elsewhere. Polls have found that relatively few Hispanic voters have been contacted by get-out-the-vote organizations.
“The Democrats have a very uphill climb changing the voting habits statewide in Texas,” said JD Gins, executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party in Austin. “That’s also very true for the GOP in the valley.”
So far, modern Latino politics, by registration and voting, has been largely Democratic. But it has yet to fully express itself, in Texas or across the country. Hispanics made up roughly 16 percent of the U.S. population in 2010 but just 10 percent of voters in the last presidential election.
In most of this year’s battleground states, Latino voters make up a small percentage of the electorate. The only Senate race where Latinos are likely to play a significant role is Colorado. Neither California nor Texas — two of the most important states in terms of Hispanic voters — are particularly competitive.
“The campaigns and the parties don’t spend any money on them,” said David Ayon, a Loyola Marymount University who studies U.S. and Mexican politics. “The level of participation just doesn’t compare, and it’s tragic.”
There are about 10 million Hispanics in Texas. Sixty-one percent of those eligible to vote in the 2012 presidential election did not participate — a turnout rate 22 points below whites in the state, according to a report this year from the Latino Decisions research firm. “Texas Hispanics are hitting well below their weight; turnout ranks among the lowest in the nation,” the report found.
Democrats want to change that. Battleground Texas, a political action committee dedicated to making Texas a swing state, has become the Davis campaign’s field operation. Among its goals is to register and turn out as many Hispanics as possible. Its volunteers have been going door-to-door — “Latinos for Wendy” T-shirts and beer cozies in tow — across the valley and the state.
But it’s common in the valley to hear people express that they feel left out, ignored. A frustration with how local elections seem predetermined and that unless you have connections you won’t benefit, anyway.
“Regardless of the amount of work that we do here, we are not appreciated. Because we’re different, we’re Mexicans,” said Yesenia Sanz, a 24-year-old college senior who also works as a hotel clerk in McAllen. “Regardless of whatever we say, it’s never going to be our decision, it’s always going to be someone else’s.”
Born in Texas, Sanz voted for President Barack Obama’s re-election because she believed he would make life better for immigrants. Then her cousin was deported. And reform got tangled in Washington. She doesn’t plan to vote again. “Nothing changed on immigration,” she said. “We’re Hispanics. We’re like a family. We did notice.”
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There’s a term used here — the “palanca vote,” from the Spanish word for “lever.”
“One pull, all Democrats,” Mayor Villarreal said.
That’s how it often seems in South Texas. It’s hard for any Republican candidate in the valley; they often don’t even run. Across the state, Hispanics are trending more Democratic, not less. When Maria Yvette Hernandez, a 37-year-old accountant, asked Rio Grande City polling officials for the Republican ballot in a recent primary election, they had to scramble to find it. “I was the first one who had asked for that,” she said.
Her son’s classmates sometimes ask him if his mom is really a Republican. When she ran for city council, Hernandez spent $25,000 of her own money and managed a bit more than 100 votes. “Just my friends,” she said.
Yet these border towns are on the front lines of some of the most politically charged issues. Hernandez parted the purple sage bush outside her E-Tax Solutions office to show discarded shirts and pants of migrants who cross the Rio Grande and change in her front yard at night. This was the epicenter of the surge of Central American migrant children that poured over the border in the summer, and they are still coming.
In the governor’s race, both candidates have stressed their commitment to Hispanic communities. In the first debate, Davis criticized Abbott likening border-county corruption to “third-world country practices.” She said that “we embrace this area” as “an incredible part of the diversity of who we are.” Abbott said that if elected, “my wife will be the first Hispanic first lady in the history of this state. And I think that is setting a new tone in our ability to connect with voters across the state.”
In 2011, the Texas legislature voted to cut funding for public schools, which became majority Latino that year. As attorney general, Abbott has been involved in a court battle against hundreds of school districts — including more than 15 in the Rio Grande Valley — contesting the cuts.
In a debate this week, Abbott said he would not veto a bill seeking to repeal what is known as the Texas Dream Act, which allows some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition.
“You cannot be a candidate to go into Hispanic communities and say, ‘I’m fighting for you,’ while at the same time you are actively fighting to defend education cuts that hurt schools in Latino neighborhoods,” said Rebecca Acuna, press secretary for the Davis campaign.
But Davis also has vulnerability among Hispanics. Republicans have seized on her position on abortion to paint her as anti-family. She surprised many people by losing several border counties in the primary — including Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy in the Rio Grande Valley — to an obscure 71-year-old Corpus Christi judge named Reynaldo “Ray” Madrigal, who barely campaigned.
“I think one of the real difficulties facing Texas Democrats is the lack of a charismatic Hispanic at the top of the ticket,” said Mark Jones, who heads the political science department at Rice University.
In Rio Grande City, Republicans Villarreal and Hernandez think that they see opportunity. They have hosted block-walks in support of Abbott and recently got in a load of 30 campaign signs. They’ve been calling around to see who’s willing to fly a Republican flag.
They find hope in small places. A local official recently whispered in Villarreal’s ear: “I’m Republican. I’m with you. But I can’t say anything.”
Down here, even silence can be encouraging.
“I’m not saying the red is taking over,” Villarreal said. “But the blue is fading into a very light complexion.”