The Republican Party set its sights on South Texas and other areas around the U.S.-Mexico border in the 2022 midterm elections in part of its push for a so-called “red wave” to usher in a large House majority.
But the efforts to lean into immigration concerns on the border fell short along with a lackluster Republican showing nationwide, analysts say, as Democratic candidates notched victories in key races across the majority-Hispanic border regions.
In South Texas, three Republican Latina candidates married to Border Patrol agents — Irene Armendariz-Jackson, Cassy Garcia and Rep. Mayra Flores — lost decisively to their Democratic opponents in border districts.
Although Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott won statewide, counties along the southwest border that are predominantly Hispanic generally voted in favor of Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke.
And in Arizona, blue districts near the border stayed that way, as Democrats for Senate and governor won in statewide races. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly won Arizona’s Pima County, which includes Tucson, by nearly seven percentage points more than President Joe Biden did two years ago.
Chuck Rocha, a Texas-based Democratic strategist, said that this cycle’s midterm results “stopped this ridiculous argument that Latinos are running to the Republican Party.”
“There was no big swing either way,” Rocha said. “I don’t want to hear anything about a wave of Latinos.”
Still, Republican strategists note that GOP candidates did tighten the margins even though those border regions are still largely blue.
O’Rourke, for example, won Hidalgo County, which is 93 percent Hispanic according to census data, by about 20 percentage points in the governor’s race against Abbott. Four years earlier, in the 2018 Senate race he lost to Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, he had won it by nearly 40 percentage points.
“The key is the margins. That’s what matters,” Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who focuses on Latino voting trends, said. “There’s no other voter group that is moving that big in America.”
The Republican Party had identified several border-area districts as potential pickup opportunities this cycle, since parts of the region went for then-candidate Donald Trump in 2020, including portions that had voted Democrat in 2018.
Of the four Texas districts identified by the National Republican Congressional Committee as targets, three shared a border with Mexico. The NRCC also included Arizona’s border-area 6th Congressional District as a potential pickup.
But progressive strategists say that last week’s results indicate that predictions of a hard move rightward for Latinos in the area were overblown.
In Texas’ 16th Congressional District, which includes El Paso, Armendariz-Jackson lost to Rep. Veronica Escobar by more than 25 percentage points. Rep. Henry Cuellar also held on to his Laredo-area district — included on the NRCC’s list — by 14 percentage points against a challenge by Garcia, a former Cruz staffer.
Flores, who won her seat in a special election earlier this year, saw her district flip back to blue, losing by 9 percentage points to Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who opted to run in her district after his was redrawn.
In a tweet, Flores blamed her loss on Republicans and independents who “stayed home.”
Republican candidate Monica De La Cruz flipped Gonzalez’s redrawn district, beating her progressive challenger Michelle Vallejo by roughly 8 percentage points. But she lost Hidalgo County, located near the border at the bottom of the vertically-drawn district, by double digit margins.
Yvonne Gutierrez, managing director of the Latino Victory Fund, said the midterm results show a “blue wall” in Texas along the border.
“I don’t think Republicans have much of a story here, except that they lost,” Gutierrez said.
Some Republican gains
Still, Republicans did show that they have a chance to court voters in future battles. Exit polling showed that 6 out of 10 Latinos nationally supported Democratic congressional candidates, down slightly from 7 out of 10 in 2018.
And that so-called “blue wall” wasn’t without its gaps.
Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales easily held on to his South Texas district, a longtime Republican hold. Cuellar’s race had tighter margins this cycle: in 2018, the Republican Party didn’t even run a candidate against him, allowing the congressman to capture nearly 85 percent of the vote against a third-party opponent.
Most notably for the GOP, De La Cruz flipped Texas’ redrawn 15th Congressional District, which has never had a Republican representative.
In Arizona’s 6th Congressional District, formerly represented by a Democrat but redrawn during redistricting, Republican Juan Ciscomani narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent, Kirsten Engel, by just over 1 percentage point.
Chris Homan, a Republican strategist, said this cycle was the first time the Republican Party significantly invested in the border region and that it made “great strides we can build upon.”
Homan said the Republican Party should employ a long-term strategy to build support among voters in the border region.
“The Democrats are praying we don’t stay involved and engaged, because they know they no longer have a lock on South Texas and the RGV,” Homan said, referring to the Rio Grande Valley along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Mario Carrillo, campaigns manager for immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, said that Republicans do have an opportunity along the border, even if those areas remain heavily Democratic for now.
He predicted that in a few years, the districts represented by Cuellar, Gonzalez and De La Cruz will be the three most competitive in the state.
“I’m hoping Democrats see the writing on the wall,” Carrillo said.
Some analysts attributed Democrats’ ability to hang onto border districts to increased investments in the region, after a “wake-up call” in 2020.
According to Open Secrets, De La Cruz raised more than $4 million in her race, more than twice what her opponent did, and Cuellar raised over $1.5 million more than Garcia. Gonzalez and Flores spent similar accounts, according to the campaign finance tracker.
Rocha, who tracks media buys, said Democrats spent more than $5.5 million combined on Spanish-language advertising in the districts won by Cuellar and Gonzalez, but only about $345,000 was spent in Spanish-language ads supporting Democrats in the district De La Cruz won.
“The Latino vote is not a base Republican vote. It’s also not a super base-y Democratic vote,” Rocha said. “There are more Democrats for sure, but there’s a bigger swath in the middle that’s persuadable. So you have to spend a lot of money to go talk to them over a long period of time if you want them to vote for you.”
Though Latino voters generally don’t put immigration as a top election issue, some immigrant advocates speculated that the results along the border show that anti-immigrant rhetoric by Republican campaigns, including ads depicting a “crisis” or “invasion” at the southwest border, did not resonate with voters in border communities.
In Arizona, for example, Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters ran ads calling to “militarize the border” and “end this invasion,” while his Democratic opponent Kelly vocally expressed support for so-called Dreamers, or undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
Kelly beat Masters by roughly 5 percentage points statewide, and easily grabbed two of Arizona’s four border districts by 26 and 38 percentage points, respectively. In the other two, Kelly lost by 11 and 6 percentage points.
“The extremism and xenophobia employed by the national GOP was heard loud and clear by Latinos who voted in races up and down the ticket,” said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of Immigration Hub who previously worked for then-Sen. Kamala Harris.
“Regardless of who’s running, this, in many ways, became a referendum on the anti-democratic tendencies of the GOP, as well as the fear mongering and violent rhetoric that is being used by national leaders in the party,” Gonzales said.
Greg Casar, a Democrat who easily won Texas’ 35th Congressional District, which includes parts of San Antonio, said the Republican Party’s immigration messaging told Latino voters the party “has gone very extreme, very right-wing.”
“We have so many mixed-status families here in our state, and these are direct attacks on people’s families,” Casar said.