In South Texas, Republicans Try to Cement Party's Gains

Jennifer Medina, New York Times, May 2, 2021

McALLEN, Texas — The front door of the Hidalgo County Republican Party’s office is covered with photographs of high-profile politicians in the party: Gov. Greg Abbott, Senator John Cornyn and former President Donald J. Trump. Nearly all of them are white men.

Step inside, and you’ll see a bulletin board with pictures of local Republican leaders: Adrienne Pena-Garza, Hilda Garza DeShazo, Mayra Flores. Nearly all of them are Hispanic women.

Hispanic Republicans, especially women, have become something of political rock stars in South Texas after voters in the Rio Grande Valley shocked leaders in both parties in November by swinging sharply toward the G.O.P. Here in McAllen, one of the region’s largest cities, Mr. Trump received nearly double the number of votes he did four years earlier; in the Rio Grande Valley over all, President Biden won by just 15 percentage points, a steep slide from Hillary Clinton’s 39-point margin in 2016.

That conservative surge — and the liberal decline — has buoyed the Republican Party’s hopes about its ability to draw Hispanic voters into what has long been an overwhelmingly white political coalition and to challenge Democrats in heavily Latino regions across the country. Now party officials, including Mr. Abbott, the governor, have flocked to the Rio Grande Valley in a kind of pilgrimage, eager to meet the people who helped Republicans rapidly gain ground in a longtime Democratic stronghold.

One of those people, Ms. Pena-Garza, the chair of the Hidalgo County Republican Party, grew up the daughter of a Democratic state legislator. As was common for most Hispanic families in the area, she said, voting for Democrats was a given. But after her father switched parties in 2010, Ms. Pena-Garza soon followed, arguing that Democrats had veered too far to the left, particularly on issues like abortion and gun control.

“Politics down here did scare me because you didn’t go against the grain,” she said. “If someone’s going to tell you: ‘Oh, you’re brown, you have to be Democrat,’ or ‘Oh, you’re female, you have to be a Democrat’ — well, who are you to tell me who I should vote for and who I shouldn’t?”

Ms. Pena-Garza said she was called a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside — and a self-hating Latino, labels that have begun to recede only in recent years as she meets more Hispanic Republicans who, like her, embrace policies that they view as helping small business owners and supporting their religious beliefs.

Now, she says, the political choice is a point of pride.

“You can’t shame me or bully me into voting for a party just because that’s the way it’s always been,” she said.

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