For too long, the Rio Grande Valley has been the most misunderstood, if not ignored, part of the state. That’s been especially true for politics, where Republicans have largely been irrelevant and Democrats have struggled to harness one of their greatest opportunity areas in America. But over the past nine months — which have included Elon Musk’s SpaceX launches near Boca Chica and renewed attention along the border by wedge-issue-seeking conservatives — that dynamic has begun to drastically shift. Suddenly, all eyes are on South Texas.
It all began last November, when Republicans emerged with outsized showing in several of the Valley’s reliably blue counties. Beyond winning Zapata County for the first time since Warren G. Harding carried it a century prior, Donald Trump drastically reduced President Joe Biden’s margins in more than a dozen adjacent counties. (Case in point: Biden won Starr County, which is 96 percent Latino, by five points. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin of victory was 60 points.)
In the months since, there have been a myriad of think pieces trying to make sense of this phenomenon. How did the GOP perform so well in an area they’re typically laughed out of? Have Democrats, who have long been criticized for taking their support in the Valley for granted, lost touch with Texas Latino voters? But most of all: Can Republicans do it again without Trump on the ballot?
These (and plenty other questions) are warranted inquiries. And based on recent reports, it’s clear that conservatives believe 2020 wasn’t an aberration. Earlier this month, the GOP political organization Associated Republicans of Texas (ART) announced that half a dozen South Texas state House seats are in their 2022 crosshairs. The news, which came on the heels of attorney general hopeful George P. Bush’s first campaign visit to the region, was only bolstered by Republican Javier Villalobos’ shocking mayoral victory in McAllen.
“There’s something going on down there,” Aaron De Leon, political director for Associated Republicans of Texas, told the Texas Tribune. “We see a great opportunity in South Texas and we want to take the offensive and take it to the Democrats in what has historically been their territory.”
To understand just how bullish the GOP is about their chances in the Valley, you have to examine the six Texas House Democrats the ART plans to target. At the top of their list is Rep. Ryan Guillen, whose 31st District sits in the aforementioned Starr County. Despite Trump’s strong performance in his neck of the woods, Guillen (whose office could not be reached for comment) won his general election handily last fall, with more than 58 percent of the vote. But with a renewed sense of purpose in the Valley, GOP operatives believe the relatively conservative-leaning district represents their best chance to capitalize on the inroads they formed last year.
Beyond Guillen, the five other Texas House Democrats ART mentioned were Bobby Guerra (District 41) of Mission, Eddie Morales Jr. (District 74) of Eagle Pass, Alex Dominguez (District 37) and Eddie Lucio III (District 38) of Brownsville, and Abel Herrero (District 34) of Robstown. Of these five, Morales Jr. is the only one whose Republican challenger came within single-digit percentage points in 2020. In fact, Dominguez and Lucio III ran unopposed in the general election.
Given his nine years of experience at the Texas Capitol, Guerra isn’t fazed by ART’s recent announcements. As an ardent advocate for increased funding like health care and education in South Texas, along with a history of bolstering trade along the border, he said his legislative track record will have him firmly atop District 41 in the 2022 elections. That doesn’t mean he views his re-election as a given, though.
“I have one of the most conservative districts in the entire Rio Grande Valley. The Republicans have been targeting my district from the very get go. In that vein, I do not take my constituents, or politics as a whole, for granted,” Guerra said. “That’s why I constantly work to deliver on the things that are most important to my district: health care, education, and jobs.”
Furthermore, Guerra said that 2020 has to be viewed for what it was — a collision of unique political forces that allowed Republicans to make their most significant push to date in South Texas. Now, it’s up for Democrats (and the state party) to ensure the GOP’s momentum halts in its tracks. “People talk about what happened in the Valley in 2020, but it wasn’t a typical election year,” he said. “We, in the Valley, weren’t the battleground. All the big money was being spent in Dallas and Houston. We fought our campaigns on our own in the middle of the pandemic.”
Rep. Alex Dominguez, who won tightly contested primaries in 2018 and 2020 but faced zero GOP opposition, admits that he was taken aback when he saw his name on ART’s target list. And, as he tells it, so were several of his Republican peers in the Texas House.
“Admittedly, on an emotional level, I was a little upset. If they really think I’m going to just lay down and let somebody try to not just take my seat, but to take away my constituents’ voices — they’ve got another thing coming,” Dominguez said. “But, believe it or not, I actually got a number of calls from House Republicans who said they were shocked by ART’s announcement, too. They didn’t agree with the tactic of coming right out and naming me personally like that. When you work so closely with these folks, you earn a level of respect and rapport with them.”
Given how dominant Democrats have been in South Texas and the variety of irregular factors surrounding last November’s elections, it’s difficult to gauge how great a threat Republicans actually represent there. The picture only becomes further muddled when analysis of the GOP’s 2022 prospects involves prognosticating what could, and will, happen without Donald Trump’s name atop the ballot. The one thing that is clear, however, is that the Texas Democratic Party has to take this conservative encroachment seriously. Because the days of taking the Valley, its people, and its politicians for granted are long gone.
“There needs to be a concerted strategy and recognition around the fact that South Texas values are different from urban centers like Austin, Dallas, and Houston. In that vein, our emphasis as policymakers from here has to be cognizant of who our constituents are, understanding what matters to them the most,” Dominguez said. “But that’s why we’ve got a true advantage here, because we know the landscape and we know how complex the Valley is politically — whereas ART seems to believe that, given these recent gains, they can just throw a Republican in and they’ll win. If they want to throw money at my district, by all means, bring it on. They’re only going to shoot themselves in the foot, because that’s going to make me work even harder for my people.”