What The Texas District 15 Race Can Teach Us About The Latino Vote

EDINBURG, Texas — Despite being a historically Democratic leaning region with a large Latino population, the race for U.S. Representative in Texas District 15 was the closest ever seen in the history of this district.

Although Democratic incumbent Rep. Vicente Gonzalez won reelection, his margin of victory over Republican contender Monica de la Cruz-Hernandez was less than 3%. This is a sharp decrease relative to Gonzalez’s margins of victory in 2016 (19%) and 2018 (20%).

Gonzalez was unavailable for comment about the nature of his win.

Pie chart of Texas U.S. Representative District 15 race results
Texas U.S. Representative District 15 Results via Texas Secretary of State Website

The 15th District — which encompasses Brooks County, Duval County, Jim Hogg County, Karnes County and Live Oak County as well as portions of Hidalgo County, Guadalupe County and Wilson County — has a Latino population of 80.2% according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Associate Professor Natasha Altema-McNeely from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley said that although Gonzalez received less votes relative to years past, it is important to note that President-elect Joe Biden’s margin of victory was more narrow relative to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Altema-McNeely said that while the GOP has gained a stronger foothold in the district, the Democratic party faced significant losses due to taking Latino voters, both in this region and nationally, “for granted.”

Wellesley College Assistant Professor Danilo Contreras said that in addition to a lack of mobilization efforts by the Democratic Party in communities of color, the Latino electorate was understood as a monolithic voting bloc rather than a diverse one.

Contreras argues that there is no such thing as a “Latino” vote due to how diverse the community is in race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, language, etc. Latinos are not “single-issue immigration voters,” and to assume that all Latinos will vote a certain way based on their Latino identity “can lead to myopic thinking” for both political parties.

Unlike the GOP, an internal division within the Democratic Party between the interests of more populous regions in contrast to more desolate regions also contributed to these election outcomes, Contreras said.

The Democratic Party is “made up of many Democratic Parties,” Contreras said. The interests of the party at the national level do not always correspond with the interests of electorates at the local level.

For example, Biden’s desire to “transition from the oil industry” towards more renewable energy sources was not received well by many residents of south Texas due to how important this field of work is for the local economy, Altema-McNeely said.

In addition, the desire to “defund the police” — a movement that has become attached to the Democratic Party — was also not received well in part due to the prevalence and prestige law enforcement possesses throughout the region, Altema-McNeely said. Misinformation about the goals of the Black Lives Matter Movement also contributed to this apprehension surrounding “defund the police” rhetoric.

Altema-McNeely said it is also important to note that the Democratic electorate of south Texas is actually quite moderate rather than progressive.

The three U.S. Representatives who serve south Texas — Gonzalez, Rep. Filemon Vela of District 34 and Rep. Henry Cuellar of District 28 — are all moderate to conservative Democrats, Altema-McNeely said. Gonzalez even ran more conservatively this year than elections past.

Yet in contrast to the District 15 race, Vela won reelection by a margin of victory of more than 13% while Cuellar won reelection by more than 19%.

In addition to being the most populated county in District 15, Hidalgo County is also uniquely divided between Districts 28 and 34, as well. Asked to comment on Gonzalez’s margin of victory relative to his neighbors, Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chair Norma Ramirez declined to comment. Republican Chair Adrienne Peña-Garza was unavailable for comment.

So what makes District 15 so different?

Altema-McNeely said GOP candidate de la Cruz-Hernandez is the difference. In addition to increased mobilization efforts, the Republican Party chose a strong candidate for the 15th District.

Issues de la Cruz-Hernandez chose to prioritize during her campaign, like border security and the Second Amendment, are issues that the electorate of the district have honest concerns about, Altema-McNeely said.

Contreras said some of these specific interests are not at the forefront of the Democratic Party’s national agenda, leading to a very clear rift within the party electorate as well as providing a window of opportunity for the GOP.

Yet, despite de la Cruz-Hernandez being a strong candidate, the impact of Donald Trump and the influence of Trumpism on American politics is also responsible for the increase of votes for GOP candidates down the ballot, Altema-McNeely said.

Contreras said the ideology of Trumpism was able to satisfy the needs of populations previously overlooked by both the GOP and Democrats. “It’s not about Trump, but what he represents.”

Yet in regards to COVID-19, the nature of Trump’s rhetoric has divided “the impact and the importance of the pandemic” across party lines, Altema-McNeely said.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, Latinos account for 39.1% of all COVID cases in the state despite only accounting for 39.7% of the population. Latinos as contracting COVID at disproportionate rates relative to other racial/ethnic demographic populations in Texas.

Contreras said increased Latino voter turnout for Trump and GOP down ballot candidates in south Texas — despite the current administration’s negligent response to a pandemic that disproportionately impacts this demographic — can be attributed to how voters prioritize their political interests.

According to the Pew Research Center, the voting issues of top priority for Latinos were the economy, health care and the pandemic, but this doesn’t mean that these are the most important issues for every Latino.

So what can be learned from the District 15 race?

The GOP is mobilizing and strengthening their presence amongst south Texas Latinos, Altema-McNeely said.

Contreras said that if the Democratic Party wants to ensure that Latino Democrats will continue to vote blue, then they “can’t assume that people will be mobilized on race alone.” The diverse local interests of their electorate must be taken more seriously.

“Democrats need to rethink the Latino playbook by realizing that there is no Latino playbook, because there is no Latino vote.”

I am a Journalism student at Harvard Extension School and a graduate of Wellesley College Class of 2019.