On Nov. 4, 2008, Mayra Flores walked into a polling station in Harlingen, Texas, and cast her vote for Barack Obama.
That morning, Flores, who was born in northern Mexico and moved to the US when she was 6, had asked her father which party she should support. The answer was no surprise: Flores had grown up knowing that Mexicans voted for Democrats, and that day, for her and her family, would be no exception. “It’s tradition for Hispanics to be very loyal to the Democratic Party,” she said.
If someone had told Flores, 34, that she’d be voting for President Donald Trump and planning to run for office herself as a Republican 12 years later, she would have laughed them off.
But although Joe Biden won the majority of Latino votes nationwide in this month’s election, Flores is one of the millions of Latinos who threw their support behind the Republican presidential candidate, gaining significant ground for the party in Democratic strongholds and once again shocking people who believe — erroneously — that Latinos continue to vote as a unified block, focused only on immigration.
“We are teachers, we are lawyers, we are doctors, we are everything,” Flores said during a telephone interview from McAllen, Texas. “We aren’t just the people who are cleaning your houses.”
And it’s a patchwork of interests as diverse as those of white Americans. It’s Venezuelans and Cubans, who’ve run away from socialist regimes; Guatemalans and Hondurans, who are fleeing massive unemployment and the adverse effects of climate change on the economy; Nicaraguans seeking asylum from political prosecution; Puerto Ricans, Haitians, and Salvadorans trying to rebuild their lives after natural disasters. It’s new arrivals and eighth-generation Americans — some who had been living in the Southwest long before the US expanded the border.
Both major political parties have for years failed to really invest in reaching the varied groups of Latino voters with vastly different life experiences and political motivations, despite multiple warnings from their own operatives on the ground. This year, that was particularly stark in two areas for Democrats: South Florida, especially Miami-Dade, where Biden only won by around 7% of the vote (Hillary Clinton won by 30% in 2016), and the border counties of Texas.
Latino Republicans like Flores played an instrumental role in this election, helping to shift Texas’s Rio Grande Valley — which includes McAllen, in Hidalgo County, where she lives — significantly toward Trump, in an era when Democrats expected that his tirades against Latino immigrants would have the opposite effect, especially on the border.
Meanwhile, Democrats made the image of kids detained in cages as a result of Trump’s immigration policies and his mismanagement of the coronavirus cornerstones of their messaging. But those messages entirely missed the mark for voters like Flores, who said what they really care about is banning abortion, law enforcement, and jobs.
In Hidalgo County, support for the Democratic candidate fell from about 68% in 2016 to 57% this year, while votes for Trump went up from 27% to 40%. Other counties in the Rio Grande Valley followed that trend.
For many voters there, it wasn’t all about Trump. Instead, it’s the Republican Party’s conservative values that are drawing more and more Latino support.
“Forget who the president is. He’s not a perfect man, he’s not free of sin,” said Flores. “What I want is for people to focus on the [party’s] platform.”
For many, college is a catalyst toward left-leaning politics. For Flores, who attended South Texas College in McAllen, the opposite happened.
After a conversation with one of her cousins who pointed out that her views clashed with those of the Democratic Party, Flores used her time there to read up on which social issues each of the two main parties stood for. It didn’t take long for her to realize that her conservative stance aligned far more with the Republican Party, especially when it came to abortion.
In 2012, with a new presidential election coming up, Flores told her father that she was going to vote for Mitt Romney. He was appalled, but came around when she explained that Republicans were “the party of the family, of faith, of religious freedom, of small government.”
Many Mexicans are devout Catholics and accustomed to conservative social policies. Abortion in Mexico is severely restricted outside of the capital city and in the southwest Oaxaca state. And while a wave of policies decriminalizing abortion has swept across Latin America, there has been major pushback from the church and many conservative groups, leading to frequent demonstrations and clashes, from El Salvador to Argentina. For many Latinos in the US, the issue carries enough weight to determine their political preferences.
Many Democrats in Texas have overlooked the importance of anti-abortion politics for religious Latinos on the border. Meanwhile, Evangelical Latino groups have been working to increase support for Republicans across the country. This year, the issues gained prominence after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who supported abortion rights. With Republicans pushing through her anti-abortion and conservative Christian replacement, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Democrats made it clear that they believed Roe v. Wade, the seminal abortion rights decision,, was at stake in that appointment.
While they continued to narrow Republican leads in suburban Texas counties especially, and the state was considered competitive for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in decades, Texas Democrats lost significant ground in Flores’ part of Texas.
“We still made gains, and we made gains in important places,” Abhi Rahman, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, told BuzzFeed News. “But we know that this isn’t acceptable and we know that we need to make more gains and make more changes to be able to win.”
It wasn’t just religion that spurred the shifting political preferences among Flores’ family and their neighbors. In 2016, with Trump’s first campaign well underway, unemployment in the Rio Grande Valley was double the national average and local officials were involved in a number of corruption scandals. Residents began to wonder how a new government could turn things around.
For people like Flores, the American dream was becoming increasingly harder to achieve.
“I had always been told that the Democratic Party was the party of the poor,” said Flores. “Right, the party of the poor because that’s how they want to keep people: poor.”
The economy in Flores’ part of Texas has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. By June, unemployment rates in the Rio Grande Valley had tripled — and since then, the pace of infections has picked up again dramatically.
Some may have blamed the lagging economy on the Trump administration’s decision to effectively shut down the border between the US and Mexico, stifling the cross-border commerce that’s usually essential for the region. But Republican messaging emphasized that Democrats would further shut down the economy to control the pandemic, a message that Trump repeatedly hammered in the weeks leading up the election.
“I support taking precautions but I can’t support shutting down businesses because people need an income,” said Flores. “In order to fight the virus, you need to have a healthy economy.”
In the final presidential debate, Biden caused concern in southern Texas about what the economy would look like under him. He said he would “transition away from the oil industry,” a frightening prospect for many in communities that depend heavily on it. Biden’s climate plan, while it emphasizes investment in renewable energies and rolling back tax incentives for oil companies, doesn’t actually propose a ban on fossil fuels. Biden himself tried to walk back his comment after the debate — aware of the potential damage it might have done.
Two years ago, Flores’ irritation had reached a fever pitch. For the first time since becoming a Republican, she was getting attacked for her political views. Trump was being criticized and roundly mocked, and Flores’ usual news sources — Univision and Telemundo — seemed alien to her and her conservative values.
Perhaps if she explained to people in her community — in their own language — that the Republican party is neither racist nor the party of the rich, she could start winning people over, thought Flores.
First, she started talking to local Republican officials and volunteers. She convinced the Hidalgo County GOP to create a position for her: Hispanic outreach chair. “This is what the Republicans were missing: bilingual people going door to door.”
Adrienne Peña-Garza, Hidalgo county’s GOP chair, cheered Flores on, knowing that the party would have to work overtime to fight against historical prejudices toward it supporters in the region. “We were getting bullied, we were getting ostracized,” said Peña-Garza. “And so our voices grew louder.”
Peña-Garza’s political journey parallels that of Flores’. Her father was a longtime Democrat, serving as a representative in the Texas legislature. In 2010, he announced that he was leaving the party, which he said didn’t represent his conservative values. Peña-Garza, who said she was frequently called a “coconut,” a derogatory term used to describe people with brown skin, began getting involved with the Young Republicans National Federation and was soon recruiting people in her community to the party.
Those door-to-door efforts by the Republicans, which the Democrats mostly abstained from in light of the pandemic and the toll it has taken in places like the Rio Grande Valley, gave the conservative party an edge in reaching voters.
About a year ago, Flores opened up her own Facebook page. In one of the first videos she uploaded, Flores said that the Republican Party “is the only party that protects babies inside their mother’s wombs” and falsely claimed that the Democrats believe “that mothers have a right to terminate the life of their babies even after they are born.”
Flores plans to run for office in the near future.
When Trump’s reelection campaign revved up, Flores figured they had a chance to change the political tide in the Valley. It wasn’t only that people were becoming more familiar with the Republican Party’s conservative values; by then, a movement was being reinvigorated across the US that could push longtime Democrats in Texas toward Trump: Black Lives Matter, or more specifically, the idea of defunding the police.
In the Rio Grande Valley, it often feels like everyone has a relative or friend working for the US Customs and Border Protection or as local police officers. Flores’ husband and several uncles hold jobs in law enforcement. While many Latinos in the border counties support the Black Lives Matter movement, calls to defund the police raised concerns in the region for people’s job security.
Some Latino Democrats believe that while some voters are unlikely to ever back them because of issues like abortion, their party failed to motivate millions of other Latino nonvoters, while Republicans like Flores were able to really reach voters and get them to the polling stations.
Former presidential candidate and Texas Democrat Julián Castro pointed out on a call with reporters last week that young Latino voters turned out at a greater rate this year than they had in 2016, boosting Democrats in some parts of the country. But in the Rio Grande Valley and other places, he admitted, they had simply not done enough.
“If you track that, it’s largely because we haven’t done the outreach of making investments that we should make — and so the message coming out of 2020 should not be that we should abandon outreach and investment to register and turn out Latinos,” he said. “It should be the opposite, that we need to do more to compete for these votes to ensure that people are registered in the first place, then to make sure that they actually turn out for Democrats.”
“The truth is that neither political party can afford to ignore the growing Latinx community and its impact on electoral outcomes. And we saw that, again, in 2020,” he added.
But while people like Flores continue drawing Latinos to the Republican Party, some Democratic leaders doubt that the lessons from this election will stick — and it could threaten the party’s results in the next election.
Asked whether there is a reckoning happening among Democrats, Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, who was recently reelected, said that it’s already happening. “But I say it begrudgingly because I feel like that is what happens every two years.”
In Florida, Biden targeted Puerto Rican voters a few weeks before the election, releasing a detailed plan to help the island’s recovery at an event in Kissimmee, where hundreds of thousands of Hurricane Maria evacuees have settled.
That may have come too late to convince Puerto Ricans to come out in force for Democrats. Despite Trump’s disparaging comments and obstruction of relief funds for Puerto Rico, Florida Republicans — led by then-governor and current senator Rick Scott — have made consistent efforts since Hurricane Maria to secure the support of evacuees, setting up a welcome center at the Orlando airport and visiting the island multiple times.
In South Florida, where Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans settled after fleeing socialist regimes, Democrats did not successfully hit back at the GOP depiction of the party as dangerous “socialists” — even after nominating Biden instead of Bernie Sanders.
As the vote results trickled in this month, many in the US, including the news media, were shocked at the gains Trump made among Latinos. But unless Democrats invest in Latino outreach consistently — not just in the weeks before an election — and definitively abandon the idea that immigration issues are the only ones that will garner support from Latino voters, they are likely to see an even larger segment of the population turn to the Republican Party.
And for some, like Flores, there is little the Democrats can do to win her back.
“I’m against abortion and that will not change, and those are my values,” she said. “My values are nonnegotiable.”