Texas Elections 2018

Ted Cruz targets conservative Hispanics in deep-blue Rio Grande Valley

The Rio Grande Valley has long been a Democratic stronghold. But U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is trying to tap into an often overlooked conservative base in this stretch of the border in his re-election bid against U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during a campaign stop in Laredo following campaign stops earlier that day in the Rio Grande Valley on Monday, Oct. 9, 2018 | by Ulysses Romero for The Texas Tribune
Texas Elections 2018

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke in the race for U.S. Senate. View full 2018 Texas election results or subscribe to The Brief for the latest election news.

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MISSION — For Deborah Rojas, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz checks off all of her most important values.

A Christian man opposed to abortion? Check. Build the wall? Check. Supports small business and tax cuts? Check, check.

Rojas was 19 when she first voted for Cruz during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, recognizing her family’s religious beliefs, backing of the Second Amendment and disapproval of the hotly debated Affordable Care Act in the senator’s political track record.

“I would like him to be more conservative,” Rojas, a Donna native and daughter of Mexican immigrants, said. “I’ve seen him growing in that area, standing up for what I believe in. He’s been working on that one.”

In a final push eight days before Election Day, Cruz was on a bus tour throughout the Rio Grande Valley to target South Texas conservative voters in his closely watched race against Democratic nominee Beto O'Rourke. The senator held rallies in Harlingen and Mission on Monday, before traveling to additional border stops in Laredo and Del Rio.

And down in the valley — a Democratic stronghold where 90 percent of the population is Hispanic and turnout has been especially low — Cruz's campaign is hoping to tap into an often overlooked conservative base in this deep-blue but apathetic stretch of the border.

“Who would have thought there are conservatives in the Rio Grande Valley?” he said in Harlingen to a crowd his campaign estimated at 1,300 people. The strong interest had prompted the relocation of the rally from a college auditorium to a larger venue up the road.

For Rojas, an active member in the Valley’s Republican community, Cruz’s politics represent everything these border communities need, starting with immigration reform.

“As a Hispanic, I know people are always surprised when I say that,” Rojas said. “The problem that I see with illegal immigration is that it almost cheats the people who come over here legally. I know it’s very hard for my parents, and they’ve worked here all their lives, they pay their taxes, they work hard, they’ve followed all the rules.”

Two years ago, Hillary Clinton clobbered Donald Trump here in Hidalgo County in 2016, drawing 69 percent support to Trump's 28 percent. Yet across the Rio Grande Valley, where immigration is an unavoidable part of daily life, views on that increasingly divisive issue — and on politics in general — are not a monolith.

“Although the valley has voted blue for quite some time, ideologically you do have a lot of variation across the spectrum,” said Natasha Altema McNeely, a political science professor at the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg.

Many Hispanics' traditional Christian views on abortion and same-sex marriage often translate more toward the Republican perspective than Democrats’ positions on these and other social issues, Altema McNeely said.

Still, it may be no easy feat to successfully convince the region that a vote for Cruz is a vote for the Valley.

Hollis Rutledge, the former chair of the Hidalgo County Republican Party, said that while voter apathy is not unique to the region, this cluster of four counties in the state's southern tip has suffered from stagnant rates of voter registration and voter participation.

And Don Medina, a Democratic precinct chair in McAllen, said that O’Rourke’s previous stops in the Rio Grande Valley have drawn unparalleled enthusiasm among Latinos, including those who may not have voted regularly — if at all.

“I saw a lot of faces that weren’t around the Democratic Party in the past,” he said. “There’s one thing that people always complain about: [Politicians] never listen to you. But Beto? He listens.”

Medina said that voter turnout has historically been low in the area because so many local races are decided during the Democratic primary and so many statewide races ultimately go red. O’Rourke, he said, is likely to change that.

Yet right when O’Rourke's bid seemed to be gaining momentum this summer, the recent political bloodbath in Washington over U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings appears to have galvanized some voters who were on the fence toward Republicans.

“I was just disgusted and saddened by the way they treated that man. It was just so unfair,” Rojas said.

Aniceto Mata, a real estate agent who attended Cruz’s rally in Harlingen, said that he and his family had previously voted twice for Barack Obama for president before he turned the family onto Trump in 2016.

As third- and fourth-generation Mexican Americans, they had supported the Democratic Party because that’s who they had been taught to support, Mata said. But he later realized that his priorities — banning abortion, lowering taxes and easing restriction on guns — matched those of the Republican Party.

“Our values are in line with conservative values,” he said, echoing a line that Cruz used at his speeches on Monday. “This whole time I was just uninformed. There are a lot of Hispanics who are conservative and don’t even know it.”

Cruz — whose father is Cuban — spoke in the first-person when discussing the Latino values of "faith, family and patriotism" and asked attendees to raise their hands if they or their parents had immigrated to the United States legally.

"What the media and the Democrats don't understand," he said in Mission, "is that the Hispanic community is a conservative community."

Disclosure: The University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.