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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.

Go deeper

Scoop: David Jolly eyes independent run for Florida governor

Jolly at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee meeting in 2014. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Former U.S. Rep. David Jolly is "strongly considering" a run for Florida governor in 2022 as an independent, a source close to him tells Axios.

Why it matters: Jolly, who repped Florida's 13th district as a Republican from 2014 to 2017 and publicly left the GOP in 2018, has built a brand on cable news as a critic of former President Trump and his allies in Congress.

How Dems could notch tech wins even with a dysfunctional Senate

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tech policy may be one area where Democrats will be able to smash through the logjam forming around their razor-thin Senate margin and actually pass meaningful legislation.

The big picture: Many Democrats want to hit Big Tech with new antitrust laws, updates to Section 230, privacy legislation and more. The party may be united enough on such issues — and able to peel off GOP support — to pass laws around them even as the Senate's 50-50 party-line split and shifting priorities imperil other legislative possibilities.

1 hour ago - Health

U.S. ahead of pace on vaccines

A health care worker administers a dose of the Moderna vaccine in Ruleville, Mississippi. Photo: Rory Doyle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.S. is now vaccinating an average of 2 million people a day, up from 1.3 million in early February.

Why it matters: That puts us on track to hit President Biden's goal of 100 million doses a month ahead of schedule.