Joe Deshotel talks Democratic messaging in the Valley

by | Nov 5, 2020 | 2020 Elections, Politics

On Thursday, the Signal spoke with Joe Deshotel, a veteran Democratic political consultant and a contributing writer to the Signal. The following is an edited transcript of our discussion about the results, Democratic messaging in the state, and Latino voters.

Texas saw record-breaking turnout. Record-breaking money pouring into congressional and statehouse races. And yet, we saw a stalemate on Election Day, which obviously favors Republicans who are still in control of every lever of power in the state. What went wrong?

I don’t think there’s any single thing you can point to. 

But if you look at the trends for Democrats, for the most part, they are still moving in the right direction, in terms of the overall vote. We gained in the suburbs and even improved quite a bit far out from the suburbs. 

If you look at the I-35 corridor, that is really becoming sort of our key place for votes and ultimately when we do flip the state, it’s probably going to heavily concentrate through the I-35 corridor from Dallas through Austin, to Bexar County all the way down to the border.

Along the border, I think is where Democrats really have issues. And I think it comes down to messaging and finding a place for Hispanics within the Democratic party; more traditional, conservative, religious Hispanics in Texas.

I think that people living in the central part of the state have different views of the border and border communities. We think of it as a monolith when we say, “immigrant rights” and we think, “oh, the people in the border are going to love this message” — because that’s sort of the entry point. 

But what we’ve seen from a lot of studies and surveys, is that there is a lot of diversity and divergence between the immigrant community — who may not even be eligible to vote at all — and American citizens of Latino background. And I think Democrats have mistakenly lumped that group together. And we’re seeing the results of it. 

If Trump spent so much time talking about the border wall and Democrats spent so much time talking about it and fighting against it, and we see border communities flip to Trump, we’ve got to open our eyes and start questioning what is really going on. And part of it is going to be talking to those folks.

We concentrated a lot in the suburbs, and we made gains there. But we did not make gains in South Texas. I believe a lot of efforts were made in the central part of the state — lots and lots of money — but there wasn’t a lot of focus in South Texas. 

We know the Biden campaign did not put a lot of money into Texas. They ultimately did send Kamala Harris here on one visit, just before the end, and frankly, most of the votes had already been cast in Texas by that time. 

The concentration of money and energy was not in South Texas and part of that was because we didn’t feel like that’s where the competitive races were. That state of Texas is never going to be truly on the verge of flipping and competitive unless we spend the time, energy, money, and groundwork in South Texas and along the border. 

We haven’t built the infrastructure. We haven’t made the investments. We just keep hoping that one day they’re going to magically turnout. That is a mistake in two parts. One, they may not. And two, if they do, there’s no guarantee they’re turning out for Democrats. 

Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear Trump overperformed with Latinos there or Biden underperformed — or both. 

Yeah, I mean I think you have to say Biden unperformed. I think we have to not take it for granted that if Hispanics vote, they vote for us.

To say Trump overperformed — and I understand you’re just making a point — but we really got to start thinking about how we talk about this. I think there’s a lot of catharsis in shaming people for their votes, and it feels good, like saying, “I did my part, why didn’t you do your part?”   

And I think that is a mistake. Research shows it’s a mistake to shame people for their vote. For the last several years, we’ve said Texas is a non-voting state. But we see that isn’t necessarily true. People do want to vote. 

Now, I’ve been saying Texas is a vote suppression state and I think there’s evidence to show that’s the case. And saying that puts the burden on the people who are running the election process, as opposed to putting the burden on the people who feel left out of the process.

So to say that it’s a non-voting state is to say the problem is with the people who didn’t vote — well maybe nobody has ever talked to them about voting. Maybe they don’t understand who represents them. Maybe they don’t see an easy path to get to the polls or know where they are. 

And so putting the onus on them is the wrong thing to do with what we’ve seen with Texas and redistricting, gerrymandering and these lawsuits to stop people from voting, and the threat of jailing people for making simple mistakes when voting. 

To keep going down this list [of problems], one of the handicaps for Democrats was in the pandemic. Traditionally, Democrats need to be knocking on doors and pulling people out of the house and having these conversations. We weren’t able to do that for safety reasons. Republicans did do it. 

We had TV ads, but everything was so saturated. I think we missed the real human touch, the real groundwork that Democrats thrive in. We missed that entire element of the campaign and that is a huge problem for us. Compound that with the misinformation on mail ballots, total efforts to suppress mail-in ballots, and then suppressing in-person turnout by not mandating masks. 

So, there were logistical problems for Democrats, but I also think there’s a messaging problem. 

I think the way people identify themselves is different than the way Democrats identify people. 

We use terms like Latinx, and that’s fine and I use that too because we’re just talking about people of Latino descent. But If you go into the Valley and ask 100 people if they refer to themselves as Latino, Hispanic, or Latinx — Latinx will be the very last one of all of those. So I think we need to be able to code-switch when we talk to each other, like when we’re talking to a woke community about advanced issues on the social side, and how we talk to voters we’re trying to bring to our side. 

But it’s not like the Biden campaign was running around and saying Latinx. When you’re talking about messaging problems in the Valley and areas outside Central Texas where you have your stereotypical Democrat-liberal voters, what about Biden’s messaging was wrong to take into the Valley?

Right, well I don’t think it’s necessarily all about Biden. I really think the Democratic Party in Texas has to have its own brand. This is really an important point. The narratives that we talk about nationally are just going to be different than the ones we talk about in Texas.

We like to say what starts here in Texas changes the world, and a lot of times that’s true, but if you look at the politics of America, a lot of what happens starts in California and Washington, and Oregon (in terms of policy shifts). They were some of the first states to legalize marijuana and now we’ve seen Mississippi legalize marijuana.

So, it’s not that we’re necessarily wrong on the issues, we just have to be careful about the way we talk about the issues.

For Biden to say, I’m not going to end fracking but we will transition away from the oil industry — he needs to make the point very clear that he means by 2050, not by 2022. We say things in such a way that allow Republicans to take little snippets. It’s not always going to be fair, but we have to be smart about the way we talk about things.

I think this is an issue with oil and gas and the jobs that accompany them. I mean, we’ve seen a lot of announcements, even in the last week, Exxon Mobil making global cuts to thousands of jobs. There’s a plant closing down in Nederland, Texas where Trump just won the majority in that county, Jefferson County — and this is under Trump. Yet, the narrative is very clear that it is Democrats that want to kill oil and gas jobs. That is something we have to reckon with and figure out a better way to talk about. 

This should not be happening in Jefferson County. When I lived in Jefferson County, it was a very big labor community. It was a lot of roughnecks working in the oil fields. But they voted blue because they knew their job, their wages, and healthcare all depended on that. But now, with this new alignment and Democrats focused on social issues, I believe their alignment has been allowed to change. 

And so those roughnecks look around and say, “well damn, these folks are just attacking white dudes. And here’s another party that looks like it’s a party of white dudes.” 

I don’t think it’s Democrats that are only playing identity politics. Republicans are playing identity politics as well. I mean, we’re the party that’s actually the most diverse. But everyone cares about money. 

The Republican’s core message is: we will cut your taxes. And that’s a very simple message. You never hear them say where they are cutting your taxes from because they don’t want to tell you that they want to remove your social security, your healthcare, or women’s health programs, or education. They just simply say: we’ll give you your money back, you know how to spend your money better.

So we just have to be a lot smarter about our economic message and concrete a lot more on the economic message. It makes us feel good and feel like better people when we talk about social issues because we care about social justice. But if we want to win, we have to be able to separate being right and winning. And we’ve had a really hard time doing that. 

I think a lot of people in the Democratic Party would rather feel good about the way they lost than feel bad about the way they won. And we’ve got to reckon with that. 

At the end of the day, do we just want to feel good that we’re the moral party and we take the high ground and support justice, or do we actually want to enact these policies and see them come to fruition? 

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

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at

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