2022 midterms

How the Border Went MAGA

Control of Congress may depend on the Democrats’ ability to adjust to reality.

Photo-Illustration: Intellligencer/Getty
Photo-Illustration: Intellligencer/Getty

The Democrats have a really, really big Latino problem.” It was the morning after Mexico-born Republican Mayra Flores won the June special election for a congressional seat in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, and longtime conservative strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project Mike Madrid was incensed by the seeming inattention of Democrats to one of the nation’s fastest-growing demographics. “The incompetence and the disregard, it’s infuriating,” Madrid steamed on an emergency taping of his podcast, The Latino Vote. “This district that just flipped has been in Democratic control since 1870,” he said, before noting it had the second-highest concentration of Latinos of “any congressional district in the entire country, okay?” Losing a district like that constituted “a five-alarm fire for the Democrats heading into the November elections.”

Flores is a MAGA acolyte who once suggested the January 6 attack was “caused by infiltrators” and has frequently referenced QAnon on her Twitter account. Her election represented the culmination of a years-long trend: Despite Donald Trump’s endlessly hostile rhetoric toward Mexican immigrants — from labeling them “rapists” in his 2016 campaign kickoff to reportedly calling for them to be shot on sight in 2019 — he made major gains across South Texas in the 2020 election, cutting the margin by which Joe Biden won the state’s border counties to 17 percentage points, half of the 33-point margin Hillary Clinton posted in 2016. “When you take voters for granted like national Democrats have done in South Texas for 40 years, there are consequences to pay,” Congressman Filemón Vela told the Texas Tribune at the time; two years later, his retirement opened the door for Flores’s ascension.

Trump’s surprising performance in South Texas had major down-ballot implications, including helping Republican Tony Gonzales win the massive congressional district that covers most of Texas’s border with Mexico, from the outskirts of El Paso to Del Rio. When I spoke to him in August, Gonzales chalked up his success to the profile he cut, which is distinct from those of more famous, big-city Latino politicians like the Castro brothers. “It helped that I was Hispanic in a Hispanic district, and I’m Catholic in a district that has conservative views. I’m a 20-year military veteran,” Gonzales said. “The No. 1 thing is just showing up and being genuine. I didn’t show up two weeks before the election speaking broken Spanish and run some ads on Telemundo and call it a day. I showed up early and I showed up often. I put 70,000 miles on my pickup truck.”

As both parties gear up for the November midterms, Republicans feel they can make further inroads in the largely Mexican American communities that line the southern border, while Democrats are seeking to reconnect with a voting bloc that may prove decisive to control of Congress, given that some of the most competitive House races in the country are taking place in the Southwest. As co-chair of the RNC’s new Hispanic Leadership Trust, Gonzales has been campaigning alongside both Flores and Juan Ciscomani, a former aide to Arizona governor Doug Ducey who is running for the district that encompasses the state’s southeastern corner. At the same time, one of the region’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents, New Mexico’s Yvette Herrell, faces a difficult fight against Gabriel Vasquez, a former city councilor in the college town of Las Cruces who represents a different path for the future of Hispanic politics along the southern border. “Coming from a working-class, immigrant family, I think that resonates with folks,” Vasquez says. “We thrive in relationship and community building.”

As I traveled across the region this summer, two competing visions of the borderland’s future were coming into focus — visions that map more neatly on to the polarized landscape of national politics than Democrats would like to admit, given that the region is full of Latino voters whom they recently considered to be a bank of safe votes. On one side are progressives promising to bring improved access to health care, education, and water to impoverished rural communities, even as the party itself grows ever more urban and liberal on issues like green energy and criminal justice. On the other is an ascendant brand of MAGA conservatism that expresses hostility to new immigrants while channeling the deep patriotism of established Mexican Americans, those who share the same resentments, if not the skin color, of the disillusioned white working-class voters of the Rust Belt and other economically depressed regions where Trump’s movement first gained purchase. As Laura Gómez, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, put it when I reached her at her home in Albuquerque, “From the Trump years on, the nation has gone through tremendous changes. Politically, ideologically. Why wouldn’t we expect that Latinos have also been changing?”

Much of the contemporary political culture of the borderlands is rooted in the profound transformation of the region that began in the 1990s with the passage of NAFTA, which paved the way for hundreds of billions of goods to move freely between the United States and Mexico, and accelerated after the 9/11 attacks, which ushered in an unprecedented tightening of the border for everyday people. More than $1 trillion was spent on the Department of Homeland Security between 2002, when the agency was founded, and 2020, a period that also saw its workforce balloon to 240,000. While the local economies that stretch across the 2,000 miles of the border may shade from agriculture in California to oil and gas in New Mexico to logistics in Texas, the presence of the military and federal law enforcement is universal.

Despite the massive cash infusion of the past three decades, generational poverty remains a fact of life in the borderlands. The low percentage of South Texans with health insurance translated to a COVID death rate that was twice as high as the rest of the state, while 135,000 New Mexicans remain sequestered in so-called colonias, rural communities that lack paved roads, electricity, and running water. For the region’s entrenched Mexican American communities, where “the border crossed us” is still a common refrain, federal jobs are typically the best gig available. Today, more than half of all Border Patrol officers are Hispanic; when I crossed the Bridge of the Americas into El Paso in June, the agents manning the port of agency were chatting with each other in the same Spanish accent I’d just heard on the streets of Juárez.

Votes cast in each precinct for Donald Trump in red, and Hillary Clinton (2016) and Joe Biden (2020) in blue. On dot = one vote. Graphic: Marcus Peabody. Data from Voting and Election Science Team, Harvard

While national observers fixated on Mayra Flores’s extremist statements, voters in South Texas found plenty to connect with in her life story. Born in Tamaulipas, Flores came to the United States as a child and spent her summers as a teenager picking cotton in the Texas panhandle. Her upward mobility spoke to the bootstrapping mentality embraced by so many immigrants, while her marriage to one of the more than 3,000 Border Patrol agents stationed in the Rio Grande Valley signaled her commitment to the agency that is thought of as gateway to the middle class for many poor families. As one advertisement that ran on Flores’s behalf a few weeks before the special election put it: “She’s one of us.”

The district was considered Democratic territory, but Republicans flooded the race with money, helping Flores outraise her Democratic opponent 16-to-1. Mario Muñoz chairs the Democratic party of Kleberg County, best known as the home of the 825,000-acre King Ranch, the largest cattle operation in the United States. Although outreach to a rural county like Kleberg would seem to be less of a priority than motivating voters in populous Brownsville, Muñoz says that during the special election, busloads of Republican activists were coming into town from North Texas “to bust doors open, meet with people, spread the message on their terms.” The rush to boost Flores’s candidacy didn’t come out of nowhere. “They’ve been making headway,” Muñoz says. “The Republican party, at the state and federal level, has been inserting and funding headquarters in regions like ours.”

Despite the shock of Flores’s victory, national Democrats were quick to dismiss the result as an aberration. Not only did the odd timing of the election lead to miniscule turnout — fewer than 29,000 people voted in a district with a population of over 711,000 — but decennial redistricting means that Texas’s 34th district will be markedly different in November, with more of the urbanized Rio Grande Valley packed into it in order to free up the hill country near San Antonio to shore up conservative incumbents elsewhere.

Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, who currently represents the district next door to the 34 but is shifting into it to challenge Flores this fall, believes the record of the Biden administration should be enough to win back voters who may have drifted away from the party in recent years. “We want to have profound conversations about what we’ve accomplished,” he says, pointing to the $68 million included in last year’s infrastructure bill to deepen the port of Brownsville, a project which, once completed, will allow the facility to accommodate larger ships than anywhere else in the Gulf of Mexico.

Most independent prognosticators now peg Flores as an underdog. But that doesn’t mean her victory this summer was pointless. When I spoke to him in July, Gonzalez seemed almost perplexed about why the GOP invested so heavily in a district it seemed destined to control for such a short time. “I asked one of my Republican colleagues I’m close with, ‘Why would y’all do that? If the district changes from a D+4 to a D+16?’ And he didn’t bat an eye, he said, ‘Because we get to own the message of a Latina Republican for six months.’”

While the competition for TX-34 may be more symbolic than determinative, many other districts along the border could go either way in November. The sense of all-out political battle is most palpable in purpling Arizona, where the Republican who has emerged to contest the region that stretches from Tucson’s east side to the southern border is Juan Ciscomani. With no record as an elected official to fall back on, Ciscomani is running a campaign of personality that centers on the immigration of his parents to the United States and prominently features images of his wife and six children. While Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick has represented the area since 2013, the combination of her retirement and the reshaping of the district to trade the arty enclave of Bisbee for rural Graham and Greenlee counties has created a prime pick-up opportunity for Republicans.

Although Flores and Ciscomani have been equally explicit in invoking their humble upbringings in their campaigns, Ciscomani’s spin on the theme is tailored less to suggest “he’s one of us” than “he’s an immigrant who made good” — a reasonable distinction, given that Arizona’s sixth district is only 17 percent Hispanic compared to the 85 percent Hispanic TX-34. After being introduced by his daughter Zoe at the event celebrating his primary victory in August, Ciscomani reflected, “Now the story of this kid from an immigrant family, who grew up in East Tucson, graduated from Rincon High School, Pima Community College, and then the U of A, also includes to be the Republican nominee for the Sixth Congressional District in the state of Arizona. The American Dream is alive.” (Campaign staff for both Flores and Ciscomani declined to make their candidates available for an interview.)

The contrast between Ciscomani’s resume and that of his Democratic challenger is stark. Kirsten Engel, an environmental law professor at the University of Arizona, first ran for office in 2016, inspired, she says, by the lack of state resources devoted to her daughter’s elementary school in Tucson. She went on to serve in both the Arizona house and the senate, where education and water security have been her signature concerns.

Engel’s appeal, which is a natural fit in an overgrown college town like Tucson, is less obvious somewhere like Sierra Vista, a city of 45,000 where nearly every resident is connected to either the adjacent Fort Huachuca Army garrison or the local offices of the Border Patrol, DHS, DEA, or FBI.

Mark Rodriguez, who joined the City Council last year, grew up in San Antonio and spent nearly two decades in the Army before landing in Sierra Vista in 2014 and deciding to stay, partially because of the magnificent landscape that surrounds the city, including the dramatic Huachuca Mountains, which the torrential thunderstorms of this year’s August monsoon had painted a vibrant shade of green. Rodriguez says that an unexpected dimension of the job is addressing the unique public-safety concerns that tend to crop up when you live 12 miles from the border. “Right now, the cartels are recruiting teenagers on Snapchat,” he says. “They’re offering them $2,000 for each person they give a ride to.”

Both here and in more rural corners of the district, Engel says her background in environmental law has made it possible to bridge the gap between the big city and the borderlands. “Just last Friday we were at the farm bureau dinner here in Cochise County,” Engel said when I met with her in Sierra Vista. There, a pepper farmer expressed his anxiety about the dropping water table on his property, a microcosm of the regional aridification being driven by the climate crisis. “People are actually losing their homes and businesses,” Engel says. “There’s nothing less valuable in the desert than a farm without water. Our lack of management, its ruining lives, its ruining families. This is real; it’s going on right now.”

Just before our conversation, Engel made an appearance at a coffee hour organized by Elisabeth Tyndall, the chair of the Cochise County Democratic Party. The party office is located in a Spanish tile-roofed strip mall, right across Fry Boulevard from the local Republican headquarters, where a handwritten sign was advertising a screening of Dinesh D’Souza’s election conspiracy movie, 2000 Mules. Engel led off by sharing the results of a poll commissioned by her campaign that found her leading Ciscomani by two points, news that was greeted with applause by the 20 volunteers in attendance. That edge, she said, seemed rooted in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, as some 60 percent of district voters believed abortion should be legal. Engel soon turned to the opposition. “Here in Arizona, the Republican Party has nominated the most extreme slate of characters imaginable, from Kari Lake to Blake Masters to Mark Finchem.” At the mention of Finchem, a self-professed member of the Oath Keepers who is running for secretary of State, the crowd broke out into a mix of befuddled laughs and hisses of disdain.

The worst Engel could muster for her actual opponent was that he “has not disavowed this slate at all.” The problem posed by the cipherlike Ciscomani was underscored when an eager canvasser raised her hand. “We need to know how to come at your opponent,” she said. “He’s very smooth.” The volunteer’s question went unanswered, but I posed it again when I spoke to Engel afterward. Though she declined to discuss Ciscomani specifically, Engel was frank in criticizing what she sees as the current conservative playbook: “I think the Republicans are adopting a strategy where they have to be careful about making sure the candidates they are presenting really have a track record in representing the community that they’re going to serve, they’re not just checking off some boxes in terms of diversity.” Her point is well taken, even if I couldn’t help but note how it echoed the attacks Democrats typically sustain for recruiting minority candidates and officials, from Vice-President Kamala Harris to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

While some Republicans may indeed be more interested in playing identity politics than building lasting partnerships with borderland communities, Democrats underrate the regional appeal of conservatism at their own peril. From 2015 to 2021, Will Hurd was the congressman for the sprawling border district now represented by Tony Gonzales. “In 2020, the number of Latinos voting for Republicans was not a surprise,” he asserts. Citing the high proportion of people across the borderlands who work in law enforcement and the concentration of oil and natural gas production in the Permian Basin that bridges West Texas and eastern New Mexico, Hurd believes it was the progressive embrace of criminal-justice reform and green energy that motivated many in the region to vote for Trump. “What was happening in 2020 was these initiatives within the Democratic party were impacting the livelihoods of people that lived along the border, that was the significant difference.”

This election cycle, those issues are again at the fore of the race for New Mexico’s second district, where the Republican incumbent, the former realtor Yvette Herrell, is engaged in a daunting fight for reelection. In New Mexico, unlike Texas or Arizona, redistricting was controlled by Democrats who passed an ambitious map designed to advantage progressives in all three of the state’s congressional districts by inserting the South Valley of Albuquerque, which is 80 percent Hispanic, into a rural district that previously constituted the southern two-thirds of the state. To meet the challenge of campaigning in the South Valley, Herrell has emphasized addressing the neighborhood’s alarmingly high crime rate. To boost her, the RNC recently opened a “Hispanic Community Center” next door to a paletería on Central Avenue, Albuquerque’s main artery. “It doesn’t matter what race, what culture, whatever you celebrate,” Herrell said when she appeared at the facility’s grand opening. “Let’s just remind each other that we should identify as Americans first” — a sly adaptation of Trump’s “America First” credo to a multicultural context. (Herrell’s campaign declined an interview request.)

Herrell’s challenger in the race is Gabriel Vasquez, a former city councilman in Las Cruces, the state’s second-largest city. Like Juan Ciscomani, Vasquez is a first-generation immigrant and was quick to invoke the American Dream when I spoke to him in July. But rather than casting himself as a golden boy, Vasquez seems more focused on how his story can help him connect with voters across southern New Mexico: “When I go talk to folks in Chaparral, or Sunland Park, or the South Valley, I share the same message of where I came from, how I got here, of the values that I’ll bring to Congress.” Vasquez’s greatest challenge will be making inroads in the southeastern corner of the state, where the oil and gas industry has boomed in recent years. His outreach to the region is centered on the low-wage workers who populate the boomtown of Hobbs, where the population jumped nearly 20 percent over the last decade as the state’s annual production of crude oil more than quadrupled.

Eduviges Hernandez is an organizer with the Hobbs chapter of the statewide advocacy group Somos Un Pueblo Unido. She says the city’s fast-growing Hispanic community is in dire need of basic health-care services, from doctors to a rehabilitation clinic. “Right now, when people need those things, they have to travel to Lubbock, Texas” — over 100 miles away. Education is also an area of concern, and Somos is coordinating most of its current voter outreach around a ballot question that would allocate $150 million to day cares and preschools throughout New Mexico. When I asked her about the congressional race, Hernández said, “Yvette Herrell, she doesn’t want to talk to us. We’re going to support Gabriel Vasquez because he’s one of our people. He wants to meet with us, to see what the plan for the community is going to be.”

Rather than engage local organizers such as Hernandez, Herrell’s campaign has focused on a pitched rhetorical battle with the Democrats who control both the state and federal governments, largely centered on Albuquerque’s surging violent crime (as the AP put it, the city’s homicide rate in 2021 ended up “shattering” the previous record by 46 percent). Herrell has called on the Department of Justice to drop the consent decree — a slate of court-ordered reforms that includes specific training programs for uniform officers and community-engagement measures — it has had in place with the Albuquerque Police Department since 2014, when the department was killing people at a rate eight times higher than the NYPD. It’s an issue that resonates throughout the state: In a September poll, the Albuquerque Journal found that 82 percent of likely voters across New Mexico describe violence as a serious issue, far more than are worried about education or the economy. “Our state’s largest city is worse-off following the enactment of this decree,” Herrell wrote in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland. “It is long past time that Albuquerque and our police department be allowed to govern themselves.”

However enticing law-and-order appeals may seem, it’s unclear how much ground Republicans can gain if they, like their counterparts elsewhere, remain trapped in an echo chamber of election denial. In June, officials in New Mexico’s Otero County — including Couy Griffin, the co-founder of a group called Cowboys for Trump — made national headlines when they refused to certify the results of a local primary election because it was conducted on Dominion voting machines. Two days later, I drove to the county seat of Alamogordo to meet with John Block, a conservative activist who had just defeated the region’s incumbent representative in the state house by 46 votes but now agreed that there was reason to be skeptical of the results. “If we have to do a hand count of the ballots, then I’m all for it,” Block said. “I do think their concerns about those machines are warranted, because there is wide reporting about how they can connect to the internet.”

Block and I spoke on the patio of a coffee shop in the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains, allowing us a grand view of the city that encompassed nearby Holloman Air Force Base and, beyond it, the glittering White Sands Missile Range, where the first nuclear weapon was tested in 1945. Though it has fewer than 32,000 residents, Alamogordo is an important proving ground for the state’s Republican Party — Yvette Herrell once held the seat in the state house that Block will likely take over in November. Although he has lived in Alamogordo for several years, Block is the scion of one of the old Hispaño families of northern New Mexico that claims Spanish colonial linage; both his grandfather and cousin once held elected office as Democrats. Block says he turned away from the party after the Affordable Care Act was passed and was so enraptured with Donald Trump that he showed up to the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, though he was wise enough to stay out of the Capitol itself.

“I think the Democrat Party has been very good at messaging themselves as being open-minded,” Block says. “That’s why I ran. We need to be better at messaging, at packaging what we have to sell to these voters … Hispanics go to church, they’re faithful people. And then immigration, they see there’s a problem with people flooding into this country and when they get here there’s no real job prospects for them because they don’t have the skills to be successful.” Ultimately, Block believes, “Hispanics are very conservative people. It just takes talking about the issues to push them in the right direction.”

The notion that Latinos are a bloc of “natural conservatives” dates back to Ronald Reagan, who once told the San Antonio advertising executive Lionel Sosa, “Hispanics are already Republican, they just don’t know it.” George W. Bush came the closest to proving his predecessor right, winning more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in a 2004 election that saw him eke out a victory in New Mexico by fewer than 6,000 votes.

“If we’re talking about Catholicism, why is it that we don’t assume that all white Catholics are conservative?” ask Laura Gómez, the UCLA professor whose most recent book, Inventing Latinos, traces how the extensive Latin American diaspora came to be thought of as a singular demographic. “There’s a great diversity among Catholics, and that exists among Mexican American Catholics, too.” To her point, both Vicente Gonzalez and Gabriel Vasquez identify as Catholic. “I’m a Democrat and I’m a Catholic and I also have an American flag in front of my home,” Gonzalez says. “The idea that we’ve allowed the Republican Party to own God and the Bible and patriotism is, I think, is just ridiculous.”

Patriotic appeals to Hispanics are particularly effective along the border because many Mexican Americans feel compelled to distance themselves from undocumented immigrants — which is to say, those who didn’t immigrate the “right” way. This is particularly true of people who hope to work in law enforcement or serve in the military. “You’re going to want to differentiate yourself from that group” of the undocumented, Gómez says. “Especially if you did immigrate or your parents immigrated.”

Although there are certainly signs that Republicans are more interested in stoking the narrative of Mexican Americans flocking to conservatism than they are in addressing the iniquities of the borderlands, it’s impossible to deny that the crosscurrents of the region are exposing the same bitter divisions that exist across the United States. For Republicans, calcifying that schism into a durable component of their electoral coalition may be as simple as canning the discriminatory rhetoric that characterized the Trump years and elevating more candidates, like Tony Gonzales, who pair “America first” appeals with traditional grassroots politicking.

Matching and then sustaining the level of support George W. Bush once enjoyed with Hispanics is all it would take for conservatives to put a stranglehold on Washington. For Democrats to prevail, each candidate will have to abandon the hackneyed ideas of what Hispanics or even Mexican Americans want and attend to the communities they hope to represent on a granular level. As Vicente Gonzalez put it: “You talk to a white American in West Texas, a white American in Austin, a white American in New York City, in Miami, in Los Angeles — you’re going to have five different stories. My Mexican American friends from L.A. and I are different. Even though we enjoy each other’s company and a common culture, our American experience has been very different. We’re as diverse as everyone else.”

How the Border Went MAGA