SANDERSON, Texas (CN) — Raeline Thompson was a registered Democrat in 2018 when she first ran for county clerk in Terrell County, a rugged county in the Big Bend region of Texas.
When it came time to run again in 2022, she didn’t want a D by her name. Last year, just minutes before the filing deadline, she decided to run as a Republican.
“I don’t agree with the Biden presidency,” Thompson said in a phone interview. “I didn’t want to be associated with it.”
Thompson isn’t alone. Some other top officials in Terrell have also switched to the GOP in recent months, including Dale Carruthers, the county’s top executive.
Enough top officials switched, Thompson said, that the local Democratic Party basically collapsed and its chair quit. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t get a Democrat Party chair before the next election," she said.
The shift played out in other parts of the Texas borderlands as well. In nearby Presidio County, top executive Cinderela Guevara switched to Republican before the election, citing her anti-abortion views — though she ultimately lost in a landslide.
In South Texas, long a Democratic stronghold, right-wing Congresswoman Mayra Flores won a tight special election this year with the slogan “God Family Country.” Ryan Guillen, a state representative who has served the region for decades, also switched to the GOP, touting an endorsement from former President Donald Trump.
It’s a trend that started showing up on political radars around 2020. That year, one of the strangest political stories came from South Texas, where Trump made unexpected inroads.
Though hardly a landslide — he still lost much of the region — Trump reversed some large and decades-old margins favoring Democrats. He also won outright in some surprising places, including Zapata County on the border.
If 2020 was a bright-red exclamation point for Democrats, this year’s midterms were more of a question mark. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke received around the same percentage of votes as Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Historically, midterms favor the out-of-power party. Even so, much of Texas bucked a nationwide trend in which Democrats overperformed in key races. Republican gains in South Texas are also raising eyebrows. The region is working-class and Latino, especially in the Rio Grande Valley in the far south part of the state, with an agricultural labor movement not unlike the one in California’s Central Valley.
Some Democrats insist that people like Thompson are an outlier. In a phone interview, Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, stressed that Zapata and Terrell are small counties and aren’t indicative of bigger trends.
In cases where Democrats did fall short — like the race for Texas’ 15th Congressional District, which went for Republican Monica de la Cruz this year — Hinojosa blamed Republican gerrymandering and a lack of interest and funding from national Democrats.
“They can only win in the Rio Grande Valley when they gerrymander districts to elect Republicans by taking Hispanics out of the district,” he said. “That’s not to say we don’t have to work hard to hold onto our voters and make sure we knock on doors.”
Still, in a state where Democrats haven’t held power for decades, not everyone is happy with Hinojosa’s analysis — or for that matter, his leadership.
Hinojosa, who has served as chair since 2012, faced a challenge this year from Democrats who saw in him an “odd combination of complacency, magical thinking, and blind belief in demographic destiny,” as Texas Monthly put it. He ultimately won reelection.
Perhaps the most-watched race in Texas this year was between O’Rourke and incumbent Republican Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott advocates building a border wall, and he campaigned hard on what he calls a “border invasion” by migrants and cartels.