Can Texas Republicans Make a Red State Redder?

They may if they keep convincing the state’s Hispanics to switch sides.

Voters wait outside a polling place held in a trailer at a grocery store parking lot on Feb. 19, 2008, in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Ben Sklar/Getty Images

No Republican in living memory has been elected to county office in Hidalgo County, near the southern-most tip of Texas. Yet state party grandees are hopeful that this year’s gubernatorial election will deliver them a coup in Hidalgo and other border districts in the Rio Grande Valley—a region that spans four counties in all and has the highest concentration of Hispanic voters in the state. Last weekend, Greg Abbott, the GOP candidate for governor, was marching across McAllen, a city of 130,000 in Hidalgo County, campaigning to win over its primarily Hispanic residents. Beto Salinas, the mayor of a nearby town, has endorsed him. “I’ve known him for a long time,” Salinas told me. “I think he is the right man for the job.”

Salinas and Abbott are old friends, which helps to explain his support, but the notion that Abbott would appeal to other Hispanic voters may seem unlikely. As Texas’ attorney general, Abbott defended a state plan to cut funds from the public school system, which would disproportionately affect poorer districts, and fought to uphold the state’s draconian voter ID laws that make it harder for Hispanics to vote. In February, some were incensed when Abbott compared corruption at the Texas border to practices seen in a “third-world country.” Yet Abbott is making a grab for votes in the Rio Grande Valley, and for the Hispanic vote in general. His wife is Hispanic, and he likes to say that he will bring the first Latina first lady into the governor’s mansion. He has been flooding local stations with ads in English and Spanish, trotting out his Mexican-American mother-in-law for the campaign.

Republicans were emboldened to take on south Texas after Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, lost seven counties along the border during the primaries—including two counties in the Rio Grande Valley, Starr and Hidalgo. These were more than 80 percent Hispanic, and in the reliably blue part of a deep red state. Strategists surmised that Davis’ stance on abortion had alienated Catholic, family-oriented Mexican-American voters. “Abortion is more salient with Hispanic voters here,” argues Steve Munisteri, the state GOP chairman. Others, like the Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar seem to agree. “Texas Hispanics tend to be a little more conservative,” he has opined.

Munisteri also points to polling that boosts Republican hopes of making inroads with Hispanics, who make up more than a quarter of Texas’ eligible voters. Earlier this year, a poll from Gallup showed a decline in the number of registered or Democratic-leaning Hispanics in the state: In 2008, 53 percent identified this way, but by 2013, that number had dropped to 46 percent. Republican identification among Hispanics, meanwhile, rose 4 percentage points, from 23 percent five years ago to 27 percent. Though a June poll from the Texas Politics Project put Davis ahead among Hispanics, the gap between her and Abbott is smaller than expected, 35 percent to 29 percent in favor of Davis. (Among blacks, 54 percent support Davis, and only 5 percent support Abbott.) Though getting the majority of the Hispanic vote is unlikely, Munisteri predicts that Abbott will come close to the high-water mark set by George W. Bush in 1998, when he won 45 percent.

Others are skeptical. “I would be very surprised if Abbott got to 40 percent,” says Jerry Polinard of the University of Texas–Pan American in Edinburg, the Hidalgo County seat. Anti-Republican sentiment has run deep since the Bush years: Residents dislike the GOP’s tougher tone on immigration nationally and in Texas in particular. (The image of a rifle-toting Gov. Rick Perry patrolling the border to fend off displaced kids sums up why.) Any good feeling from the 1990s and early-aughts has long since eroded.

Republicans have tried to reframe the issue as one of heightening border security, rather than tightened immigration. Abbott has been careful not to couch discussions about the border in punitive, nativist terms. Whether that has been successful is debatable. Mayor Salinas says the increased presence of Department of Public Safety police dispatched to his town, Mission, is welcomed, but Polinard notes that the Republican penchant for portraying the border as a sordid, lawless place angers local merchants.

As for Davis’ losses during the primaries, they came about because “she didn’t do enough campaigning and get her message out enough then,” thinks Amancio Chapa, a Mission local who has long been involved in Texas politics. It’s possible that some might have disagreed with her stance on abortion, he says, but it is not the issue that comes near the top of south Texans’ concerns. Education, health care, and jobs consistently rank highest. When it comes to border issues, like this summer’s influx of child migrants from Central America, Hispanics in South Texas were far more likely to say that this signaled the need for immigration reform, not greater border security, according to research from Josh Ulibarri of Lake Research Partners, a Democratic pollster.

Davis has been keen to highlight Abbott’s failings, airing ads about his involvement with questionable health funds (the ones that got Rick Perry into trouble) while highlighting her own education pitch—“La fuerza de Wendy Davis,” a recent ad, stresses that she “will fight to protect the funds for our schools.” Her efforts will probably ensure that the vote in South Texas remains solidly Democratic this election.

But winning there may prove a Pyrrhic victory: Any gains Republicans make in the Rio Grande Valley will be read as important progress for the GOP, even if it is not an outright win. It would indicate that party identity among Texas Hispanics is fluid and break the assumption that they will always vote Democrat. That would be bad news for those who had high hopes of turning the state purple. “Before this election, I couldn’t get the RNC to give us anything,” Munisteri told me. “But now we’ve got permanent offices in South Texas, in El Paso, in Laredo—and it’s thanks to Wendy Davis and Battleground Texas (the PAC set up in 2013 to boost minority Democratic voters).” A vote for Greg Abbott in Hidalgo County may not swing the outcome of this election, but it may attract more dollars to fund Republicans’ efforts to convert Texas Hispanics.