48 Hours on the Border

Experts see politics shifting in the Rio Grande Valley

As demographics in the Rio Grande Valley change, so are its political leanings. Experts say conservative messages resonate in the area.

Experts see politics shifting in the Rio Grande Valley
Eric Gay / AP
SMS

2024 is a presidential election year and while Texas as a whole is likely to go red, the Rio Grande Valley has been blue for decades. But a shift has been seen since the 2020 general election and the 2022 midterm elections.

"Its status as a Democratic stronghold is a bit misleading," said Andrew Smith, assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Smith says although the valley has always been blue, Hispanics in the area are primarily conservative.

"As the Democratic party nationally moves more to the left or at least a portion of it, the people down here are more susceptible to the conservatism of the Republican party," Smith said.

Let's take a look at the numbers in Starr County, on the west side of the Rio Grande Valley. According to the Texas Tribune, in 2016 79% voted for Hillary Clinton and just 19% voted for former President Trump. But in 2020 those numbers changed: 52% voted for President Joe Biden while 47% voted for former President Trump.

What does comprehensive immigration reform look like?
What does comprehensive immigration reform look like?

What does comprehensive immigration reform look like?

Those on the front lines of the complex migrant crisis believe there are solutions to fix the admittedly broken immigration system.

LEARN MORE

Republicans see an opportunity.

"Hispanics have always been very conservative at nature, so slowly, I think they're seeing that the Republican party is welcoming and they identify more with their values," said Adrienne Peña Garza, Hidalgo County Republican Party chairwoman.

Garza says they have seen an increase from Hispanics in the Rio Grande valley in joining their party.

"When President Trump got into the picture, he fought for the everyday blue collar American, and encouraged people to be silent no more, and I believe that's why he did so well, there's this message of freedom," said Garza.

Eric Holguin, Texas state director of Unidos U.S., says while the shift is seen, Democrats still hold a significant lead in the valley.

"If you look at the results of 2022, all of the counties in the Rio Grande Valley stayed Democrat, they didn't go red, there might be a slight uptick," Holguin said.

Holguin says there's a reason for that.

"The reason why we're seeing and keep hearing this narrative that we're going red is because so much money and so much investment from the Republican party has been put down here to try and flip this area," Holguin said.

Professor Smith says both the Republican and Democratic parties nationally are paying attention to the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas. Both President Biden and former President Trump have made visits to the area recently.

"Democrats I think realize that if they do not speak to the population in the valley, do not speak to the people who live in the 4 counties of the lower Rio Grande Valley," Smith said. "If they take that for granted, they're in trouble."

This story was originally published by Javier Guerra at Scripps News Corpus Christi.