A post-election report from the Rio Grande Valley offers critical guidance for Democrats

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The Rio Grande Valley was the subject of breathless reporting after the 2020 election with dozens of think pieces dissecting the performance of Donald Trump, who improved his electoral numbers dramatically over his showing in 2016, and speculating about a disappointing showing from Democrats in a traditional stronghold. However, many of those stories were filed by national reporters without the benefit of an on-the-ground presence or an in-depth knowledge of the Rio Grande Valley.

Now comes a groundbreaking report that finally answers several questions about 2020, like what went so wrong for Democrats and went so right for Republicans. Cambio Texas, a progressive organization whose mission is to increase voter turnout and elect leaders that reflect the community, has released a post-election report that relies on extensive interviews with elected officials, campaign workers, consultants, and most importantly, voters in the Rio Grande Valley.

Following the 2020 election, national stories about the Rio Grande Valley were everywhere. There were headlines touting Trump’s incredible performance in Zapata County, the first time a Republican won there since Reconstruction. One big problem: Zapata County isn’t actually a part of the Rio Grande Valley. Many of the stories also predicted that it was trending Republican, and perhaps becoming a lost cause for the Democratic party. According to the post-election report from Cambio Texas, that’s not accurate.  

In the 2020 election, voter turnout in the Rio Grande Valley reached 54 percent, which was an increase over 2016 when it was 48.6 percent. In the Rio Grande Valley, Donald Trump nearly doubled his vote share from 2016. Though President Biden received more votes than Hillary Clinton in both Hidalgo and Cameron County, his vote share was significantly down due to the increase in votes for Trump. In Hidalgo County, the largest county in the Rio Grande Valley which includes McAllen, Trump’s vote share increased from 28 percent in 2016 to 41 percent in 2020.

There were also unexpectedly close congressional races. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who cruised to re-election in 2018, won by only three points in 2020. Similarly, Rep. Filemon Vela also saw a much tighter race than many predicted. Vela recently announced he would not be running for re-election in 2022.

In an interview with Texas Signal, the Executive Director of Cambio Texas, Abel Prado, walked us through some of the big takeaways from their post-election report. One of his first points from the report was that many of the voters who came out in the Rio Grande Valley were specifically Donald Trump voters, and not necessarily Republican voters.

Many of Trump’s traits, including his brashness, a self-styled Hollywood pedigree, his experience as a businessman, and his billionaire status, resonated with many voters in the Rio Grande Valley. “The increase in Republican vote share were Donald Trump votes, not conservative votes, and there’s a difference,” said Prado. With the caveat that Trump is a unique figure, there are still plenty of lessons the Democratic party should take from 2020.

The first is that Republicans up and down the ballot were highly effective in using local vendors. “Every single Republican candidate that was on the ballot purchased locally,” said Prado. Many Democratic campaigns abide by a well-intentioned edict to use union printers. The closest union printer to the Rio Grande Valley is in San Antonio.  

Local printers worked with many Republican campaigns, including Monica de la Cruz, who came within three points of defeating incumbent Rep. Gonzalez. The report from Cambio Texas highlights the goodwill that the Republican Party of Hidalgo County fostered with several local vendors, which had no Democratic counterpart. 

Prado even recounted a story from an interview with a vendor in the Rio Grande Valley, a proud Democrat and a Biden voter, who nevertheless reveled in the “Trump trains” that county Republican parties put on during the weekends. The liberal vendor was able to set up shop next to the vocal Trump supporters and sold merchandise like Trump flags..

The report also pinpoints where “investment in the Valley” went awry. According to Prado, that “investment” included parachuting national campaign operatives into the Rio Grande Valley, where they had no attachment to the local community. When there was high spending in the Rio Grande Valley, it often went towards outside groups or PACs. For Prado, that investment “depriv[ed] a lot of local vendors to earn a slice of that through their services and local input.”

Though many post-election autopsies around Texas have focused on the lack of in-person campaigning from Democratic candidates due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cambio Texas conducted a survey of Trump voters to distill where they received the bulk of their messaging. A majority of those Trump voters were actually reached by television and radio. Less than 14 percent of the Trump voters received a home visit from a canvasser from the campaign.

The report also notes that Republicans in the Rio Grande Valley invested heavily in texting. About 38 percent of Trump voters surveyed received a text message from the Trump campaign or an organization supporting the Trump campaign.

Another interesting finding from the report concerns the actual policies of the Democratic party. In the aftermath of 2020, there has been persistent anxiety about how progressive is too progressive. “People aren’t necessarily turned off by socialist values, they’re turned off by socialism as it exists in the zeitgeist,” says Prado. He mentioned that phrases like “Medicare for All” or “Healthcare is a human right” are not broadly popular in the Rio Grande Valley.

However, there is a way to tweak the messaging on healthcare, specifically for voters in the region. Cambio Texas suggests reframing healthcare as a service we are all paying for, but most of us are getting a bad deal. “If you went to get your car fixed and [later] you saw they charged you $25 just to pop open your truck, you [wouldn’t] go back to the mechanic.”

The most salient portion of the report concerns what happens next. Perhaps that’s best summarized in the report as follows: “If you want the Rio Grande Valley to turn out like Harris County, you’re going to need to spend Harris County dollars across an extended period of time.” If Cambio Texas is going to achieve its goal of reaching 65 percent turnout in the Rio Grande Valley, they estimate it will require 12 to 18 months. They also suggest that canvassing should start at least 8 months before early voting.

Prado, for his part, recognizes that many down ballot Democratic candidates in the Rio Grande Valley actually performed well in 2020. Democrat J.E. “Eddie” Guerra won his re-election for Hidalgo County Sheriff with 69 percent of the vote. Joe Biden won Hidalgo county, albeit by a smaller margin than Guerra, with 58 percent of the vote share. Senate candidate MJ Hegar got 55.8 percent of the vote.

The full post-election report is available on Cambio Texas’s website here. One person, who might have a keen interest in 2022, has called it one of the most “honest and illuminating” documents about 2020. That, of course, would be former Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke. Whether he will be barnstorming the Rio Grande Valley as a gubernatorial candidate in 2022 is still up in the air.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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