Nonpartisan mayoral races don’t usually have large political implications. But Saturday’s win by a Republican in McAllen, Texas, is different, as it confirms that Latino voters are up for grabs.
McAllen has long been a Democratic stronghold. The city, which is 85 percent Hispanic or Latino, has elected Democratic mayors since 1997 and voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in partisan races.
In 2016, McAllen voters supported Hillary Clinton by a 40-point margin over Donald Trump. Trump cut that margin by more than half in 2020, and now the approximately 143,000-person city has gone red.
Republicans are naturally crowing over the win while Democrats are playing it down. But both parties know that Latino voters shifted significantly to the right last year, a development that rightly worries Democrats. They depend on winning Hispanics outside of Florida by large margins. Trump would have won Arizona and Georgia had President Biden’s margins among Latinos dropped from about 25 points to 20 points. Democrats are goners throughout the Southwest if Republicans can ever seriously compete for Hispanic voters.
This poses challenges for each party. For Democrats, it first means recognizing that Latinos aren’t a monolithic ethnic voting bloc that they can count on to view Republicans as racist oppressors. A recent analysis conducted by the Democratic groups Third Way and Latino Victory found that Democrats fell into this trap in 2020, viewing Latino voters as a demographic they did not need to persuade. The analysis specifically singled out the party’s failure to note that Hispanic men in the Rio Grande Valley and oil and gas workers in New Mexico might view issues differently than urban Hispanics elsewhere in the country.
Many Latinos are also culturally conservative, which means they will increasingly collide with the Democratic wing that is at best indifferent to the concerns of traditional Christians. This tension manifested in the 2014 Texas Democratic gubernatorial primary. Then-state senator Wendy Davis had become a national progressive icon for her filibuster against a GOP-sponsored bill that would restrict abortion rights.
The staunchly pro-choice Harvard Law graduate swept to victory, but lost many heavily Hispanic counties in the Rio Grande Valley. These counties also saw the largest swings toward Trump last year. That could be a coincidence, or it could show that a culturally progressive Democratic Party is simply out of touch with many working-class Hispanics.
This doesn’t mean Republicans are home free. Hispanics tend to be more economically liberal than the average Republican voter. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 67 percent of Hispanics think the government should do more to solve problems; only 23 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of conservative Republicans agree.
A 2013 poll found that Latinos favored government spending and higher taxes over a smaller government by a 58-33 margin. Any GOP effort to increase Hispanic support has to meet Latinos where they are, not where conservative Republicans wish they would be.
Democrats have long thought they had a lock on people of color. For Latinos, that’s increasingly not the case, making the battle for their votes one of the most important stories to follow in the coming years.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.