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Democrats switch sides along Texas border as GOP gains ground  

In the Texas borderlands, cultural anxieties and fears about migrants are pushing some Democrats towards the Republican Party.

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.

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Abbott has falsely claimed that people on the border are “being threatened on a daily basis with guns.” When he declared an emergency on the border this year, some officials along the border refused to sign on. Still, his hardline strategy seems to have worked. While the border wasn’t a big issue for voters in general this year, polling shows it was in Texas.

More migrants are crossing the Texas-Mexico border, and it does cause fear and headaches for some border residents. While migrants rarely commit violent crimes on their journey north, they do commit nuisance crimes like cutting water lines and killing livestock to survive.

Abbott’s rhetoric appealed in some far-flung border communities that feel neglected by Austin and Washington. Those communities also get money from it: By declaring there's a border disaster, local governments can unlock new sources of state funding.

Hinojosa, the Democratic chair, admits Democrats haven’t come up with a good counterstrategy on the border.

“Republicans have put together a brilliant narrative on this issue, and they’re shameless about using it,” he said. “It’s hard for us to get out there and say, ‘Don’t worry about immigration because there really isn’t much cross-border crime.’”

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent passes along a section of border wall in Hidalgo, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

In Hidalgo County on the border, Richard Cortez, the Democratic top executive, was one of the local border officials who refused to go along with Abbott’s emergency declaration. After Abbott held a border-security briefing in the county in June, Cortez told Courthouse News there was “no evidence” that migrants were leading to increases in violent crime.

“South Texas continues to be blue,” Cortez, who was reelected by a wide margin this month, said in another interview after his victory. It’s a microcosm of what happened all across Texas, where Democratic officials held onto posts in blue parts of the state but didn’t gather enough support to win big in statewide races.

Cortez has seen a rise in partisanship and extremism in Hidalgo. During the pandemic, he received messages from constituents calling Covid-19 a “hoax.” At the polls this year, someone told Cortez’s daughter that he was a “corrupt Democrat.”

He said Hidalgo has seen "difficult times" lately, including from the coronavirus pandemic and the 2021 winter storm, and thinks bipartisanship could be a solution. While Hidalgo County didn’t vote for Republican Congresswoman Monica de la Cruz, he said he wants to work across the aisle to address the needs of constituents.

One big concern these days is inflation. “Inflation hurts people in poverty more,” Cortez said, noting that some low-income residents were facing questions like, “Do I buy gasoline for work for food for my family?” When it comes to inflation, he added, polls show people “basically blame the Biden administration.”

In nearby Zapata County, which went for Trump in 2020 and Abbott this year after years of Democratic wins, economic concerns are also top of mind for many voters.

“We’ve been a natural gas-producing county for many, many years,” said Joe Rathmell, the Democratic top executive. While local reserves have started to deplete, “many of our folks still work in the oil industry.” On the top of the Texas ballot, he thinks candidates like O’Rourke were “just too left-leaning for residents” when it came to issues like energy policy.

Down ballot, the story was different. “The majority of our voters here are with the Democratic Party,” Rathmell said. Everyone who won locally was a Democrat. “There’s really no Republican Party presence in our county.”

That might be changing. Republicans could continue seeing gains among Texas Latinos with a pitch of “defending gun rights, promoting the oil and gas industry, restricting abortion, and supporting law enforcement,” Texas Monthly argued last year. In Zapata County, “we’re a border county, and we’ve got border issues,” Rathmell said. While he agrees with other officials that the Texas borderlands is largely “very safe,” he said residents have been rattled by recent developments, including the discoveries of cartel stash houses in Zapata.

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All along the Texas border, residents have complex and conflicting feelings on migration. Many say their communities need more workers, especially as rural towns hollow out. Still, they’ve come to believe that migrants crossing the Rio Grande today are somehow fundamentally different from decades ago.

“It wasn’t like this when I was growing up,” said Thompson, the Terrell County clerk. Migrants used to cross the border to “become citizens and get their families over.” Now, she says, migrants are “coming over with backpacks, cellphones and brand new shoes.”

“It’s all organized,” she said. “There’s different morals.”

Some residents stress how nuisance crimes like cut fences have impacted their friends and family. Others know people in Border Patrol — a major economic driver in Texas border communities — and feel defensive about what they say is vilification of border agents in national politics and the media.

Kelli Ellis, a justice of the peace in Terrell County and a longtime Republican, brought up a controversial and viral news story from earlier this year. Pundits said Border Patrol agents were whipping migrants. That wasn’t true, she said.

"They sacrifice so much," Ellis said of border agents. "We don't even watch the news because it's so, so shaded." Besides, she argued, migrants were no angels. Coyotes abandoned stragglers in the desert, and local officials like Ellis were left to clean up the bodies. She predicted Terrell County would continue to trend Republican.

Surely, it was cartel coyotes and human traffickers — not desperate migrants — who deserve the blame. Was there room in Terrell County for people who came to America in search of a better life?

Ellis hesitated. "That's a whole can of worms," she said. While she sympathized with the young migrants she met through her work, she said many "already have a drug and alcohol problem."

"We could use a workforce here in Terrell County," she said — but she didn't think migrants would want to stay. "They’re headed to bigger and better places."

Maybe some Texas Democrats, including politicians, were never really Democrats at all. While some people think of Texas as solidly Republican, local officials for decades ran as Democrats regardless of their personal beliefs. The tradition persists in some parts of the state, including West and South Texas.

When Thompson debated switching parties, "I really had a hard time," she said. "I thought that if the locals vote for Democrats, I needed to be on the Democratic ticket." In the end, though, many other locals were feeling the disillusionment.

In South Texas, Guillen, the state representative, was one of the most conservative Democratic lawmakers in Texas even before he switched parties, according to an analysis by Rice University. Almost immediately after switching parties, Guillen touted an endorsement from Trump.

In a statement, which Guillen shared on Twitter, Trump said Guillen had switched parties “because of the Radical Left’s ongoing destruction of our Country.”

“President Trump, I am honored to receive your endorsement,” Guillen responded. “A big THANK YOU from me and my friends and neighbors.”

It isn’t clear that everyday Texas Democrats even want someone like Guillen in the party. Asked about this, Hinojosa, the state party chair, stressed the Democratic Party has a big tent.

“My mother was very pro-life,” Hinojosa said. “She never voted for a Republican.”

“We have space for these people in our party," but issues like abortion "just can’t be the controlling issue for them,” he added. Besides, he argued the Democratic Party is more pro-life when it comes to issues like health care and education.

In some cases, the divide may just be too great. Many border Democrats said border security was a top concern for them. Press them a bit harder, though, and another priority often comes up.

“I don’t know what your belief is, but we need God in this country,” Thompson said. “We were built up with God. We need to get back to those values.”

Maybe some Democrats on the Texas border have fundamentally different values from the modern Democratic Party. Put another way: maybe they’re Republicans.

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