Up is down: Republican showing stronger in county

Amidst a record-breaking turnout, Trump-voting Hispanics in Cameron County and the Rio Grande Valley were key to keeping Texas red in the 2020 General Election according to analysts, while Republican candidates at the top of the ballot won a higher percentage of the county vote this year compared to 2016.

The Trump-Pence ticket got 48,834 votes (42.9 percent) in Cameron County this year compared to 63,732 votes (56 percent) for Biden-Harris. In the 2016 General Election, Trump received 29,472 (31.8 percent) to Hillary Clinton’s 59,402 votes (64.1 percent).

Asked if it could signal a slight shift in the county’s political culture, which has long favored Democrats, Cameron County Democratic Party Chairman Jared Hockema said it probably has more to do with the Biden campaign’s failure to adequately engage with voters here and across the Valley. At the same time, Hockema predicted Biden would win the presidency.

“Obviously he’s done a good job with his campaign in that sense, but we certainly hoped for more engagement down here from the national candidates and the statewide candidates, because that’s what helps drive excitement and helps turn out the vote,” he said. “But it also helps prevent folks who might be Democrats from voting for the other candidate.”

Normally, top-of-the ballot Democratic candidates do better than those down the ballot, though this time it was the other way around, with many Democratic candidate receiving vote percentages in the 60s but Biden only hitting the high 50s, Hockema said.

“Usually our presidential candidate gets more votes,” he said. “And so that’s something that struck me and that I think needs to be worked on.”

The Biden campaign’s failure to engage in South Texas likely caused some of that erosion, since it meant the Democratic candidate for president was less well known here than Clinton or Barack Obama, leaving even Democratic voters susceptible to Trump’s messaging, Hockema said.

The county experienced historic voter turnout this year of 115,093 ballots cast for a nearly 53 percent turnout. Hockema said his party did a good job turning out voters this election, though so did the Republicans. At the same time, the decline in Democratic vote share was less than in some other South Texas counties, which Hockema attributed to his office’s local get-out-the-vote efforts.

He said the relatively high numbers for the Republican presidential ticket were “sort of an aberration and it’s not something that I expect to continue.”

Hockema said he also thinks Biden focused too much on Trump’s pandemic response at the expense of pocketbook issues, which could have hurt him along the border.

“On the other hand our margin in Texas was better with Biden than it was with Hillary Clinton four years ago, and Hillary Clinton did better than Obama did,” he said. “You’re seeing these incremental improvements. Texas is a battleground state, and I think because of that you’re going to start seeing more investment down here. So we’re hopeful.”

Cameron County Republican Party chairwoman Morgan Cisneros Graham said the fact that straight-ticket voting wasn’t an option this year was a double-edged sword that didn’t necessarily always benefit Republican candidates, especially down the ballot. Rey Gonzalez, for instance, in his third unsuccessful bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, did worse against Vela than in previous elections and had the second worst showing of any Republican candidate on the ballot, she said.

Graham think that’s partly due to the loss of straight-ticket Republican voters in the northern part of state’s 34th U.S. congressional district, which Vela represents, as well as Gonzalez’s narrow focus on abortion, which she said may not be as much of an issue even to conservative, pro-life border Democrats as bread-and-butter issues like job security.

At the same time, even though Democrats won the majority in the county, Republicans outpaced Democrats in terms of growing the ranks of new voters, Graham said. The county had double the number of first-time voters than statewide, roughly 20 percent of 10 percent, she said. As a result, the historic ratio of two Democratic voters for every one Republican voter no longer holds true for the county, Graham said.

“That means that for some reason Trump was able to invigorate first-time voters to a degree that was higher than in past years,” she said. “We don’t have enough knowledge to be able to say that it’s going to be a trend, since it’s a one-off.”

What’s clear is that Biden failed to resonate with Hispanic Democrats along the border the same way that Bill and Hillary Clinton did, Graham said. She also thinks Valley voters responded to Trump’s economic messaging.

“It can be a trend if and only if Republicans in other parts of the state and in the country are willing to accept that what they want voters to care about most may not necessarily be what voters care about most,” Graham said. “People want you to work for their vote. People need to vote for you on purpose, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Cameron County Elections Department Administrator Remi Garza said that, despite Biden’s relatively weak showing, a look down the ballot at the county sheriff and district clerk races show that Cameron very definitely still leans Democratic. Democrat Eric Garza beat Republican John Chambers for sheriff race 66,566 votes to 41,023, or 61.9 percent to 38.1 percent, while Democrat Laura Perez-Reyes vanquished Republican Mirla Veronica Deaton for district clerk 66,363 votes to 40,281, or 62.2 percent to 37.7 percent.

“The top of the ticket usually can have a positive impact down ballot but it appears, at least in Cameron County, the down ballot was stronger than with the national candidates,” Garza said.

The elimination of straight-ticket voting was also a likely reason Biden didn’t perform better among county Democrats, Garza said. If there’s a trend there somewhere in favor of Republicans, he added, it’s for political science majors to figure out. Meanwhile, Garza said he’s very happy with the county’s record-smashing turnout and hopes it becomes the new normal.

And considering the circumstances under which it took place, the election went off as usual, he said.

“We wanted it to feel familiar and it seems as though it did,” Garza said. “We were hoping to get the final election night numbers out sooner but our ballot board was taking its time reviewing the high number of ballots-by-mail that we had returned. It was a long night for us. We finished at approximately 3:30 in the morning as we were processing the 9,869 mail-in ballots.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com