A Blue Texas Runs Through This Valley
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if Beto had performed here as well as Hillary did, Texas might already be blue.
By Nick Fouriezos
The Rio Grande Valley is a place often forgotten or passed over. In pre-pandemic times, retirees (the so-called Winter Texans) and college kids would pass through on their way to cheap medicine and surgeries or spring break revelry south of the border. Now, the region with disproportionately poor, rural, majority-minority communities is being ravaged by the coronavirus.
But Texas politicians avoid it at their peril: The valley is emerging as a crucial battleground for Democrats hoping to paint the (famously red) state blue in November. Polls are showing Joe Biden and Donald Trump neck and neck in the state. To see the valley’s electoral importance, all one has to do is look at the Senate race here in 2018, when Democrat Beto O’Rourke lost to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz by just 3 percentage points.
“What people don’t realize is that [O’Rourke] underperformed Hillary Clinton levels in the Rio Grande Valley. If he had the Hillary 2016 vote there, and continued with the suburban push he got, he would have had enough votes to flip the state,” says Abhi Rahman, communications director of the Texas Democratic Party. “It’s kind of how you win Texas.”
And there’s a huge tranche of available votes:
The four core Rio Grande Valley counties all had voter turnout of 46 percent or less in 2016, putting them near the bottom of the country.
That’s according to an exclusive county-by-county analysis of voter turnout across America for OZY’s “Who Cares?” project, in partnership with data firm 0ptimus. Hidalgo, Willacy, Starr and Cameron counties all ranked in the bottom 10 percent of America’s 3,000-plus counties when it comes to voter turnout in each of the last four election cycles. “Brownsville [in Cameron County] has always been bottom of the barrel when it comes to resources,” says Kim Hunter, an immigration lawyer who works in the area. “Everything about the valley is so isolated.”
The people being missed in previous elections were disproportionately Democrats and disproportionately people of color. And a huge portion of them are in the Rio Grande Valley.
Hudson Cavanagh, data director, Texas Democratic Party
In March, before the COVID-19 pandemic began gripping the nation, Democrats spoke about their plans to target the valley. The state party had already done a public outreach campaign during the primary, using Spanglish mailers for the first time — leaning into the local dialect fusing English and Spanish. They were planning to field 1,000 staffers across the state in November, with at least a fifth of them being in the Rio Grande Valley. Those specific numbers could change by the fall, depending on how social distancing guidelines alter campaign tactics. Still, the party has also invested in a voter targeting model to fill in the gaps where the national party database is lacking, and it has a valley emphasis too.
“It’s the first time a state party has built a machine-learning model like this,” says Hudson Cavanagh, data director for the Texas Democratic Party. “The people being missed in previous elections were disproportionately Democrats and disproportionately people of color. And a huge portion of them are in the Rio Grande Valley.”
The Democratic National Committee has named Texas one of its top 10 battleground states for the 2020 election, and has already tripled its investment in the state from four years ago. The Biden campaign recently started spending a bit of money on TV ads in Texas as it seeks to expand the electoral map. But it remains a massive undertaking, trying to turn out low-propensity voters in a state that takes 12 hours to drive across. That task becomes even more difficult when trying to reach valley voters who often have less access to quality home internet or face significant language barriers.
Republicans continue to dominate the scene in the state. And they’re working hard to paint Democrats such as Biden and MJ Hegar — who won the nomination last week to face Republican Sen. John Cornyn — as too extreme for the state. “They stand for far-left ideas like government-run health care, taking away our right to self-defense, and taxing policies which would kill the Texas economy,” Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey said after the March presidential primary election.
There’s also a nagging polling concern for Biden that is particularly acute here: He isn’t performing as well as Clinton did among Latino voters. Hidalgo, Willacy, Starr and Cameron counties are all at least 88 percent Latino.
For Democrats, winning Texas at the presidential level for the first time since 1976 would be icing on the electoral college cake — it would mean Biden already won big — but it would represent an existential crisis for Republicans, given its 38 (and growing) electoral votes. And the path runs through this forgotten valley.