Nov 15, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Hispanic lawmaker says progressive ideas alienating Texas Latinos

Rep. Henry Cuellar talks with reporters in the Capitol after a meeting
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

"Defund the Police" rhetoric and fears that progressive climate policies could cost oil jobs boosted President Trump's performance in blue, largely Latino Texas counties bordering Mexico, a top Hispanic leader tells Axios.

Driving the news: Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose 28th Congressional District runs from the outskirts of San Antonio to the Rio Grande, toured eight counties in his district over four days last week.

  • Several counties swung to President Trump even as down-ballot Democrats held strong.
  • Most notably, Trump won the small border county of Zapata with 53% of the vote after losing it to Hillary Clinton by 33 percentage points.

Why it matters: Latinos were an important part of Joe Biden's winning coalition, but leaders are warning that Democrats could lose more loyalty in 2022 midterms or the 2024 presidential race if they feel taken for granted or the party pushes too far left.

The big picture: The top two recurring concerns in Cuellar's constituent conversations were oil and defunding the police.

  • In small counties, sheriff and police departments are often one of the biggest local employers. The Texas Democrat found himself having to reassure numerous law enforcement officials who were anxious about budget cuts.
  • In Zapata, Webb and Starr counties, Cuellar heard support for moving to cleaner energy but he worries about its impact on employment. "You can't go in and get rid of jobs," he said. Trump pounded the Democrats over their Green New Deal and stoked concern they would ban fracking.

Between the lines: Concerns about illegal immigration also played a role.

  • Cuellar has loudly opposed the president's border wall but says many Latinos in border counties work for the Border Patrol and want strong immigration enforcement.
  • "There are folks [elsewhere] that feel that we should have a more open-border type of system, and I'm telling you, down here? No way. There's just no way."

Be smart: Democrats have been drooling because Texas has begun to move left, largely due to bluing big cities like Houston and Dallas. But Biden's poor performance with heavily Latino counties along the Rio Grande River is a warning sign.

  • Cuellar said his party has taken the Latino vote for granted and "Trump did a much better job at understanding Hispanics. Sometimes, Democrats see Hispanics as monolithic."
  • The congressman said if Democrats don't improve in rural Texas, they will stay in the minority in the state.
  • He held up Beto O'Rourke's Senate candidacy as an example of how to successfully challenge Republicans in the state. "You know what it did? He showed up in rural Texas."

Yes, but: While maintaining support with Latinos in South Texas is critical for Democrats, it does not necessarily mean they've lost ground with Latinos as a whole, Pew Research Center's Mark Lopez told Axios. 

  • Latino voters are diverse, Lopez said, with different political preferences rooted in where voters live, where they are from, their religion and gender. Many Hispanics in Florida's Miami-Dade County have Cuban connections and have generally been more supportive of Republican candidates in the past.
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