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In Texas, Democrats and Republicans are trying to win over Latino swing voters

Yesenia Monisvais speaking to member of LUPE as they canvass in San Juan, TX. Oct. 4th, 2022.
Jason Garza for NPR
Yesenia Monisvais speaking to member of LUPE as they canvass in San Juan, TX. Oct. 4th, 2022.

Updated October 21, 2022 at 4:36 PM ET

After Donald Trump outperformed among Latinos in South Texas in 2020, Republicans have been hoping to further improve their margins among those voters. Historically, South Texas has been a stronghold for Democrats in the state, but Republicans are banking on those ties not being as strong as they used to be.

Jorge Martinez, an adviser and spokesperson for LIBRE Initiative Action, said for the past decade his team has been aiding political efforts in other parts of the state and the country. But recently, he explained, more resources have been focused at his base in McAllen, Texas.

"Now all eyes are on South Texas," Martinez said. "Now we are the ones getting all the support here."

Members of LIBRE canvassing in a neighborhood in Mission, TX psoe for a selfie. Oct. 5th, 2022.
/ Jason Garza for NPR
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Jason Garza for NPR
Members of LIBRE canvassing Oct. 5 in a neighborhood in Mission, Texas, pose for a selfie.

During a recent canvassing effort, Martinez and his team knocked on doors in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Mission, Texas, which sits right on the U.S.-Mexico border. Their goal was to get the word out about Monica De La Cruz, a Republican congressional candidate running for the newly competitive 15th Congressional District in South Texas against Democrat Michelle Vallejo.

One of the potential voters they talked to was Fidel Villaseñor, who said he did not know if he was going to vote for De La Cruz in the fall. He told Martinez, though, that the most important issue for him during this election is inflation.

Signs for Monica De La Cruz and Mayra Flores in front of a home in Mission, TX. Oct. 5th, 2022.
/ Jason Garza for NPR
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Jason Garza for NPR
Signs for Monica De La Cruz and Mayra Flores in front of a home in Mission, Texas.

Martinez said most of the voters he talks to are concerned about the economy and rising prices, which he thinks could be a winning issue for his group as they organize for Republican candidates in the area.

"That's what's hurting families, and everyone is feeling it whether you are going to the grocery store or anything that you consume — prices are high right now," Martinez said. "Our message is that we need the government to limit spending."

Johnny Vasquez of LIBRE displays district maps in their office in McAllen., TX. Oct. 5th, 2022.
/ Jason Garza for NPR
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Jason Garza for NPR
Johnny Vasquez of LIBRE displays district maps in their office in McAllen, Texas, on Oct. 5.

Democrats still have an edge

According to recent polling, nationwide Democrats still have an edge with Latino voters — including in Texas. Democrats opened a national field office in South Texas earlier this year and have been running radio ads in an effort to hold on to their support in key parts of the state.

But Jens Manuel Krogstad, a senior writer and editor with the Pew Research Center focused on Latino views and attitudes, has found evidence in recent polling that compared to other voters, Latinos have pretty soft ties to political parties even when they favor one over the other.

"One point that really illustrates this is that roughly 1 in 10 Latino voters who identified as either a Democrat or Republican held political views that more closely aligned with the opposing party than their own party," he explained.

This is why Latino voters are more like swing voters compared to the rest of the country.

"Latinos don't always neatly fit into the nation's two party system," Krogstad said. "And the survey shows that Latinos in some ways are charting their own course."

A mural at the LUPE office in San Juan, TX. Oct. 10th, 2022.
/ Jason Garza for NPR
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Jason Garza for NPR
A mural at the LUPE office in San Juan, Texas.

The surveys he has looked at show that many Latinos do not see much of a difference between the parties.

Artemio Muniz is chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans in Texas. He thinks a large swath of Latino voters actually agree with conservatives on a lot of key issues.

"They tend to be more center-right," he said.

Muniz says if Republicans do a good job of consistently talking to Latino voters about those issues, they would be able to "take away voters from what is only a skin deep type connection" to the Democratic Party.

"When the party doesn't do the work and they don't show up and they don't have the right messaging, the default is Hispanic voters tend to vote for Democrats," he explained.

A door hanger from LUPE promoting the exercise to vote is left on the front gate of a home in San Juan, TX. Oct. 4th, 2022.
/ Jason Garza for NPR
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Jason Garza for NPR
A door hanger from LUPE promoting voting is left on the front gate of a home in San Juan, Texas.

Why Latinos don't have deep ties to any party

Latinos act like swing voters because neither party has had sustained and meaningful outreach to Latino voters.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, has been polling Latino voters in Texas for years. He explained neither party has done a good job of engaging these communities and making them feel like their votes actually matter.

"Many in the Latino community are not getting the kind of contact from campaigns organizations or political parties or community organizations," he said. "So, I think a lot of them feel lost. They feel a little bit adrift. So, they don't have a connection to these parties. And as a result, they don't feel swept up in these national trends that pit red versus blue."

In South Texas, there are some community groups — namely a nonpartisan group called LUPE — that have been plugging away for years to get these voters engaged.

Flora Martinez Duran speaking to member of LUPE as they canvass in San Juan, TX. Oct. 4th, 2022.
/ Jason Garza for NPR
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Jason Garza for NPR
Flora Martinez Duran speaks to a member of LUPE as they canvass in San Juan, Texas, on. Oct. 4.

Joaquin Garcia, director of organizing at LUPE, says their hard work has helped communities advocate for basic services like sewage treatment, drinking water, street lights and paved roads.

On a recent afternoon, Garcia and his team visited a neighborhood in San Juan, Texas, to let people know about the upcoming election.. Most of the potential voters they spoke to were unaware an election was soon approaching.

Garcia says he has been surprised considering all the ads and attention in South Texas this election cycle.

Members of LUPE canvassing in a neighborhood in San juan, TX. Oct. 4th, 2022.
/ Jason Garza for NPR
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Jason Garza for NPR
Members of LUPE canvass in a neighborhood in San Juan, Texas, on Oct. 4.

"We don't know why that is," he explained. "They keep repeating it on TV and on the radio stations."

"But I mean a lot of these people have two, three jobs. They are not paying attention to elections. Their thing is getting money to sustain their families. So sometimes they don't see politics as a priority for their needs," Garcia said.

This lack of time to engage or knowledge about current politics in the state is not a small obstacle for Republicans in Texas.

Members of LUPE canvassing in a neighborhood in San Juan, TX. Oct. 4th, 2022.
/ Jason Garza for NPR
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Jason Garza for NPR
Members of LUPE canvass in a neighborhood in San Juan, Texas, on Oct. 4.

Rottinghaus says getting people to make voting a priority in general is not an easy task if it's something they were not doing before.

"That's the biggest challenge that Republicans face in trying to get a vote stabilized and get them to motivate them towards the Republican candidates," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.
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