Why Democrats Could Lose in a Texas Congressional District That’s 70 Percent Latino

A Trump backlash is predicted in the suburbs. But will it materialize in a heavily Latino border district?

gina ortiz jones
Justin Miller

Why Democrats Could Lose in a Texas Congressional District That’s 70 Percent Latino

A Trump backlash is predicted in the suburbs. But will it materialize in a heavily Latino border district?

by Justin Miller
October 18, 2018

The 23rd Congressional District is Texas’ one true swing district. It forms a claw that holds on to the heart of San Antonio and then stretches west all along the border to El Paso County. It’s a gigantic district, encompassing two time zones as well as about two-thirds of the Texas-Mexico border, and it’s more than 70 percent Latino.

If a backlash to Trump — the president who demonizes Mexican Americans, separates children from their parents at the border and obsesses about building a border wall  — were to materialize anywhere, you would think it would be here.

But in Texas, perennial concerns about low Latino turnout are again rearing their head. “If you were banking on the Bexar County Democratic Party to carry a heavy share of the load [in the 23rd], you probably want to rethink your plan,” Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor, warned.

Instead, Democrats are counting more on the resistance — and their path to a House takeover — to run through the oak-lined boulevards of Bellaire and West University Place in Houston’s 7th Congressional District and Highland Park in Dallas’ 32nd Congressional District. There, they think they can flip moderate Republicans and independents who are highly likely to vote. They’re counting less on turning out unlikely Democratic voters in the Latino neighborhoods of south and west San Antonio and El Paso’s Lower Valley, or the struggling border towns of Eagle Pass, Del Rio and Presidio.

Latino turnout rates in the 23rd have long been anemic, especially in midterm years. In Bexar County, just over 30 percent of registered voters went to the polls in 2014; the rates are often worse in the district’s border counties.

The current congressman, Will Hurd, has effectively sold himself as a Republican maverick — despite voting with Trump more than 95 percent of the time. He travels the district, holding town halls in local Dairy Queens, and it probably doesn’t hurt that he’s good friends with Democratic darling Beto O’Rourke, who has refused to weigh in on the race.

Democratic challenger Gina Ortiz Jones is a strong candidate with a big network of national party support. She was raised by a single mother in San Antonio, served in the Air Force under “don’t ask, don’t tell” and, if elected, would be the first Filipina-American member of Congress.

She’s running hard on health care, spending millions calling out Hurd for voting eight times to repeal the Affordable Care Act and blasting him as “outraged on CNN, but complicit in Congress.”

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Gina Ortiz Jones talks to an attendee at an art show in Del Rio in October while a band plays in the background.  Justin Miller

In an interview, Ortiz Jones brushed off concerns about low Latino turnout, emphasizing that her campaign is traveling all over the district and investing heavily in a strong field program: “There’s no blue wave without the work,” she said. The DCCC is also investing significant money in Spanish-language ads in San Antonio, according to a state party official.

But of all the competitive congressional races in Texas, the 23rd is looking the most bleak for Democrats. In a September special election, state Republicans were able to flip a long-held Democratic senate seat that includes much of the district. National Republicans recently canceled some scheduled ad spending in the race, perhaps a sign that they’re confident in Hurd’s chances. The district is notoriously difficult to poll, but the New York Times’ live polling project had Hurd leading Ortiz Jones by 8 percentage points back in September.

Even in what’s expected to be a big wave election for Democrats, will one of the most heavily Latino seats in Texas slip away yet again?

Ventura Mancha has heard it all before. At an early October roundtable discussion with a small group of veterans in the VFW’s Del Rio bingo hall, he reminds Ortiz Jones that politicians often come to town and make a bunch of promises, only to turn their backs on the small border community once they get elected. He’s heard it from Democrat Pete Gallego, the former congressman in the 23rd District, and he’s heard it from Hurd, who won the seat in 2014.

The problem, Mancha said, is that inaction is hurting Del Rio’s sizeable community of veterans. “We still don’t have a VA clinic down here,” he said. “We still have to drive to San Antonio. … When you get [to Washington, D.C.], don’t forget about us.”   

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Ortiz Jones explains her plan to improve veteran services during a roundtable with U.S. military veterans at the Del Rio VFW post.  Justin Miller

Mancha said he’s voted for Republicans in the past, but is now considering Ortiz Jones. He won’t talk badly about Trump — “right or wrong, he is the commander in chief” — but plenty of others at the event were less reserved. “Everybody knows he’s taking his presidency as a game, you know,” said Ramon Castillo, an Army veteran who was born across the river in Ciudad Acuña but became a U.S. citizen and grew up in Del Rio. “He thinks he’s the king.”

Meanwhile, Esther Chapoy and Dea Vallejo — both older Latina Republicans — were concerned that Ortiz Jones would support socialist policies, and they talked about Muslim people buying up land near the border with plans to invoke Sharia law. “President Trump is the best president we’ve ever had,” Chapoy told me at the VFW event. “Who cares if he doesn’t talk the way a president is supposed to talk. I don’t care. As long as he puts our country first and makes America great again — and keeps it great.”

In border counties like Val Verde, home to Del Rio, turnout rates have always been low — just over 8,000 of the more than 26,000 registered voters turned out in 2014. “A lot of people are like, ‘Why do I vote? Nothing changes.’ As a result, it’s getting harder and harder to turn people out,” Bobby Fernandez, the city’s former mayor, told me.

For years now, Democrats in Texas have been perplexed as to why Latinos haven’t become the political force that their population numbers would suggest. Political groups have spent millions trying to build up Latino outreach, but results have been lackluster. The state’s weak party infrastructure has a hard enough time turning out its typical base, let alone activating a whole new swath of untapped voters.

Demographics are, in fact, not destiny. Latinos — or any other group for that matter — are not going to vote unless they believe the political system is relevant to their daily lives. When you’re struggling to pay the bills and working one, two, even three jobs, the machinations of Washington and who controls the House of Representatives may not be on your mind.

In a new survey report put out by Jolt Texas, a group focused on building young Latino political power, 50 percent of young Latino respondents said they were cynical about politics — they don’t trust politicians and don’t think their vote would make any difference.

“It’s not their fault,” Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a leading Latino polling firm, told the Observer “Look around and ask Latinos to name 10 things the political system has done for them. They’ll stop at zero.”

Still, he says that he’s seeing much higher levels of interest and engagement among Latino voters in Texas now than in 2014. Part of that is because of Trump, and part is because of the high-profile Senate race between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz. The question, of course, is if the enthusiasm will carry over to the ballot box. That all depends on the candidates, who Barreto says need to be doing the hard work of connecting with unlikely voters who never get contacted in midterms: “If they’re just following the traditional model of reaching out to voters who’ve voted in the past, you’re never gonna break out of that cycle.”

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Beto and Ortiz Jones campaign signs sit in a yard in south San Antonio.  Justin Miller

State Representative Poncho Nevárez, a Democrat from Eagle Pass who holds a seat that includes Del Rio and much of the rural area between San Antonio and El Paso, agrees that there will be a Latino uptick this cycle. O’Rourke’s field program, he says, has a marked presence in Eagle Pass and other border towns and is mobilizing new volunteers. “Wendy [Davis] and some of those other campaigns didn’t bother to do that stuff here,” Nevárez said.

But in the congressional race, Nevárez doesn’t think either candidate is doing enough to reach out to voters in his area and are focused too much on trying to run up turnout in Bexar.

In a new poll of nearly 400 registered Latino voters in Texas, Barreto’s Latino Decisions found that 44 percent of those characterized as traditionally unlikely voters are “almost certain” to vote in November. Nearly 70 percent of those unlikely voters said they haven’t been contacted in any way by a campaign or other political organization this year.

The southern outskirts of San Antonio are indicative of that cycle of undermoblization — it’s an underserved area with a lot of working-class families. Many of them didn’t vote in 2014, and therefore campaigns likely won’t reach out in 2018. That’s by design. Republicans gerrymandered CD 23 to include this part of San Antonio because it’s both heavily Latino and has exceedingly low turnout. The area helps maintain the district’s status as a minority opportunity seat without posing a political threat to the GOP.

Jim Kane has lived on the south side of San Antonio for most of his life and recently became precinct chair for his neighborhood. Rosey Abuabara, a San Antonio native who heads the Indivisible chapter for the 23rd Congressional District, often makes the trek from her home in the white, more affluent northwest suburbs (where Republicans like Hurd pull a lot of their votes) to block-walk with Kane — one of the few people Kane is able to depend on to help canvass the area.

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Rosey Abuabara, who heads a local Indivisible chapter in San Antonio, protested outside Rep. Will Hurd’s office for more than a year. Now, she’s focused on turning out Latino voters for Gina Ortiz Jones.  Justin Miller

“Let’s be honest, Beto is not reaching out to people in my neighborhood,” Kane said. Groups that specifically target low-propensity voters, like the Texas Organizing Project and the Bexar County Democrats’ coordinated campaign, will make some passes, but political campaigns simply don’t spend much time or resources here. Kane said Ortiz Jones has tried to change that in the homestretch.

The Beto events with “craft beers and all this other hoity-toity bullshit,” Kane said, aren’t doing anything for anyone in his part of San Antonio.

“Someone like my father would never go to stuff like that,” Abuabara lamented. Her father, a bus driver, and mother, a seamstress, were the children of Mexican immigrants and they both eventually settled in San Antonio. Abuabara’s father was in a union, and its political education program instilled in him and his family strong Democratic voting habits.

That’s part of the reason that Latino turnout in Texas has historically been much lower than in other states, like California and New York, where unions are much stronger and more effective at mobilizing their members. With Texas’ weak unions, labor is a far less influential political player.

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Members of Stephen Alvarado’s family listen as Rosey Abuabara and Jim Kane talk to them about the elections.  Justin Miller

On a Saturday evening, Abuabara and Kane drive the streets of his precinct, knocking on doors and delivering signs to people who’ve requested them. They bring signs for Beto and Ortiz Jones to post in Stephen Alvarado’s yard. Alvarado is a loyal Democratic voter and a custodian at a local school district. He’s eager to vote, but he doesn’t see Trump’s rhetoric and actions as a uniquely motivating factor for Latinos in South Texas. “It’s always the same. Some people in the same groups are motivated and then I see other groups that they’re too busy with their other daily lives,” Alvarado said.

Before calling it a night, Abuabara and Kane hit a few more houses — one man is eating dinner and hastens them away. They can put a Beto sign in his yard, but not a Gina Ortiz Jones sign. He’s never heard of her.

Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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