AUSTIN, Texas ― It was supposed to be the year that Texas threatened to turn blue. Instead, Democrats saw their margin of defeat nearly double from 2.6% in the midterm U.S. Senate race to 5.9% in the presidential race Tuesday night. They failed to flip the state House of Representatives, which was widely seen as an achievable goal, and both Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Democratic Senate candidate M.J. Hegar failed to win a majority of the vote.
Democrats have long hoped demographic pressure in majority-minority Texas would push the state solidly into its hands over time, mirroring California’s evolution in the 1990s. Instead, the GOP has retained a stranglehold on the state’s politics that’s more common to the Deep South. The Democratic struggle for power in Texas is often measured by the low level of Latino turnout.
But in one of the most stinging defeats, Democrats saw heavily Hispanic South Texas turnout grow while President Donald Trump soaked up a greater proportion of the votes.
Several counties in South Texas, where Hispanics typically make up 90% or more of the electorate, cast an unusually high number of ballots for Trump. In the region’s two most populous counties ― Hidalgo and Cameron ― Democrats saw their share of the vote drop 10.7 and 6.6 percentage points, respectively.
The story across South Texas was similar. In 2018, well-known incumbents Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela snagged their seats with 60% or more of the vote. This week, those blowout leads dwindled into the 50s for all of them. Gonzalez won his race by just 3.3 percentage points ― down from a margin of more than 20.
“The only way to interpret it is a substantial number of Latinos voted for Donald Trump,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
The Democratic Party’s lackluster performance among Hispanics doesn’t fully explain the dashed hopes. But it augurs poorly for a party that knows its future rests with boosting Latino turnout — and getting Latinos to vote blue.
The results in South Texas defy easy explanations. But the coronavirus pandemic, several analysts and operatives said, was probably the most important factor.
In the Rio Grande Valley, one of the state’s poorest regions, unemployment had tripled by the summer, in the wake of the pandemic. A disproportionate number of Hispanics run small businesses.
That profile forced many South Texans into what Cristina Tzintzún, founder of the Latino voter mobilization group Jolt, called an “impossible choice” ― either go to work and risk getting sick or stay at home without a way to pay the bills. Facing economic ruin, for many, the election turned into a referendum on pandemic restrictions that limit work opportunity.
“The economic pain was deep,” Tzintzún told HuffPost. “It wasn’t because they agreed with Republicans. They were thinking, ‘Do I economically live to make it another day?’”
The pandemic also undermined the Democrats’ ground game. A region with low turnout and sharp distrust of politicians like South Texas normally requires heavy investment in voter outreach just to get people to the polls. Democrats, fearing the possibility of spreading COVID-19, forewent the only tried-and-true method of mobilizing distrustful voters ― knocking on their doors, ideally starting a conversation at least three times. That was a key piece of the strategy that led Beto O’Rourke to narrow the margin of the defeat in a Texas statewide race from the double digits to 2.6% in 2018.
Instead, Democrats relied heavily on turnout strategies that required no contact, like text messaging campaigns and media buys. That approach failed them in two ways. First, operatives believed it was less effective than in-person visits. And second, it left the field open for Republicans, who felt less encumbered by the threat of spreading the coronavirus.
Beyond the problems created by the pandemic lurked the usual complaints that the Democrats failed to invest early and deeply enough with the demographic most important to its long term viability. “Maybe a presidential campaign designed to win African-American voters in the North doesn’t apply well to Latinos on the Texas border,” said Jones.
Operatives complained of small budgets for Hispanic outreach and baffled looks when they asked for early polling. Instead of robust outreach, they got 11th-hour TV ads ― a strategy that few veterans view as effective.
“You would never treat your base vote the way some campaigns treat the Latino vote,” said one Latino Democratic operative. “This isn’t a persuasion vote. It’s a voter that you have to let them know who the candidate is, what’s in it for them, and turn them out. It’s not the unicorn moderate Republican you have to persuade.”
The economic pain was deep. It wasn’t because they agreed with Republicans. They were thinking, ‘Do I economically live to make it another day?’ Cristina Tzintzún, founder of Latino voter mobilization group Jolt
Other problems might have plagued Democrats more than anticipated. Some cited the end of straight-ticket voting as a thorn in the party’s side. One veteran campaigner speculated that the snowbirds who winter in South Texas might have voted in higher numbers this year, distorting the result. Others cautioned that the results might shift somewhat as the last votes trickled in.
And, on some level, the problem appeared to lie with the candidate himself. Across South Texas, Biden soaked up a smaller share of the vote than down-ballot colleagues running for House seats, sometimes by a wide margin. Biden won just 52% of the vote in Starr County, for example, while Rep. Cuellar walked away with 74%.
Democrats, who have not won a statewide election here since 1994, have cycled through manic hopes followed by stinging disappointments since Wendy Davis’ crash-and-burn campaign for governor in the 2014 midterm. The repeated chest-thumping ahead of defeat can sometimes mask the fact that the party has made significant gains in recent years, especially on the back of O’Rourke’s attempt to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz two years ago.
But losing vote share among border residents in a Democratic stronghold — to a president who uses Mexicans and immigrants as punching bags — will likely force a deep round of analysis and soul-searching ahead of the next election cycle.
“It’s weird,” one prominent Democrat said. “We’re looking through the numbers and trying to assess what’s going on. We’re going to take our time.”