On the first Tuesday in April, one month after cruising to the GOP nomination for his third term as governor, Greg Abbott made a bold prediction about November’s general election. “Every year that I’ve run for governor, I got about forty-five percent of Hispanics. That’s good,” he told an upbeat crowd of about 150 at a Texas Latino Conservatives luncheon in San Antonio. “But let me tell you what’s going to happen this year: I will get more than half of the Hispanic vote.”
It’s not the first time that Abbott has made such boasts. When he officially launched his campaign for a third term in January, the governor picked a symbolically important setting: the Hispanic Leadership Summit in the border city of McAllen. After introducing his wife, Cecilia Phalen Abbott, as “The first Hispanic first lady of Texas,” Abbott proclaimed that Democrats’ dominance among Hispanic voters was near its end. Former president Donald Trump’s surprising surge of support in McAllen and across majority-Hispanic South Texas in 2020 had proven, Abbott said, that “in the heart of Hispanics, they are really Republicans.” Since then, Abbott has stayed on message. “The majority of Hispanics in Texas truly embrace the values of faith, family, and freedom that are at the heart of the Republican Party,” he tweeted in March.
The governor may be getting ahead of himself. One of the most in-depth polls of Tejano voters, released earlier this month by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, paints a cloudier picture for Abbott. The TxHPF, a nonprofit affiliated with centrist Republicans, is the only polling and research organization focused specifically on Texan Hispanics. And its poll shows Abbott getting clobbered by Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke among Hispanic likely voters by an eighteen-point margin, 54 percent to 36 percent. “The governor has said it’s his mission to win a majority of Hispanics in Texas,” said Jason Villalba, CEO of the group and a former Republican member of the Texas House. “We’re now, what, six months out from Election Day, and I think he’s short. I don’t think he’s going to be able to overcome his deficit.”
Even though Abbott has made dozens of visits to the Rio Grande Valley as governor (more than any previous Texas governor, he claims) and has actively courted Hispanic conservatives, Villalba thinks the governor has struggled to come across as substantive or tolerant. “Governor Abbott is to be commended for . . . trying to appeal to Hispanics,” Villalba told me. “He does genuinely care. But . . . there are concerns about his authenticity. He talks a big game, and he’s down in the Valley often, but what has he done for the Hispanic community there lately?”
In his announcement speech, Abbott noted that during his time in office, the RGV had opened its first level I trauma center and a Texas A&M Higher Education Center in McAllen. However, the vast majority of Abbott’s frequent trips to the Valley have focused on immigration and border enforcement; he has spent billions in taxpayer money to arrest migrants who he says have “invaded” border residents’ property. While Villalba says that Hispanics in the Valley generally support strong immigration enforcement, he thinks Abbott’s harsh messaging on the issue has alienated voters who might otherwise have supported him: “There’s a way you approach those questions; there’s a way you can talk about those issues that can be softer,” Villalba said.
Despite media portrayals of Hispanics as single-issue voters, many polls have found that immigration, as an issue, ranks surprisingly low among Hispanics’ priorities, well behind the economy and health care. “Abbott’s focus has not necessarily been on those kitchen-table issues that drive Hispanics,” Villalba said. “He’s focused on those culture-war issues that drive Republican primary voters.” Villalba also thinks that memories of Abbott’s most recent border initiative will hurt him with Hispanic voters. The governor’s short-lived plan for state troopers to perform “enhanced inspections” united South Texans in fury when truck lines backed up for as long as 36 hours, clobbering a local economy that relies on cross-border traffic of everything from produce to components for Texas car and truck assembly plants.
But Abbott’s chances of a Hispanic majority were already slim before trucks started backing up at the border. A Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler poll conducted in February found that only 36 percent of Hispanic voters said they would vote for Abbott, compared to O’Rourke’s 45 percent. If Abbott can’t do better than that among Hispanic voters in November, he’ll be merely matching his performance from 2018, when he performed 9 points worse than his 44 percent showing in his first run for governor in 2014.
Abbott’s first term in office marked a steep rightward turn on immigration for Texas Republicans. His predecessors, Rick Perry and George W. Bush, each worked to sideline anti-immigration extremists during their time in office and offered messages of outreach and inclusion. That work paid off, at least for Bush. When he ran for reelection as president in 2004, he collected 49 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas. Abbott, as state attorney general under Perry, also opposed far-right legislation on immigration, claiming that enforcing immigration laws was not Texas’s job. However, upon entering the Governor’s Mansion, Abbott began courting the GOP’s right wing and transformed into a border hawk. Despite the claim he made to the Texas Latino Conservatives, his portion of the Hispanic vote plunged to 35 percent—not “about forty-five”—when he ran for reelection in 2018.
Texas Republicans have been trumpeting their surge of Hispanic support since 2020. Following Trump’s shocking performance in South Texas, where he improved his numbers in some counties by 40 percentage points or more over 2016, Abbott and his GOP compatriots have woven a story that 2020 was just the beginning—the first wave in a tidal surge of Hispanics shifting into the GOP. Democrats, they say, have alienated Hispanic voters with their positions on abortion rights, immigration, law enforcement, and the oil and gas industry, and the GOP is ready to accept them with open arms. “Not only will I win [the] Hispanic vote in Texas, Republicans for the first time will win counties on the border; we’re going to win counties in the Rio Grande Valley. We’re gonna win counties that have never been won before,” Abbott proclaimed at the Texas Latino Conservatives luncheon. But, based on the data his group has collected, Villalba thinks Democrats will still comfortably carry the Hispanic vote this year, even if the trend line is heading rightward over time. One reason: President Biden’s favorability ratings remain solid among registered voters in the Hispanic community statewide, 50 percent favorable versus 44 percent unfavorable. (That’s significantly better than Biden’s 40 percent favorability among all registered voters in Texas.)
“The largest portion of Hispanics in Texas, from the Rio Grande Valley to the Panhandle, from El Paso to Tyler, are going to favor the Democratic candidate,” Villalba said. Polling indicates that 2020 might have been an anomaly, rather than part of a long-term trend of Hispanic Texans shifting Republican.
Two years ago, Villalba says, Democrats in Texas faced a “perfect storm.” In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the party almost entirely abandoned door knocking and other in-person campaigning. Republicans enthusiastically filled the gap, canvassing thousands of South Texas homes and holding cookouts and “Trump Train” events. Republican attack ads also proved brutally effective. Many South Texans work in law enforcement and in the oil and gas industry. During a year rocked by the George Floyd protests, the GOP convinced many that Democrats wanted to defund the police (a position Biden specifically disavowed). They also succeeded at painting Biden, who has spoken about combating the climate crisis (but recently signed new drilling leases), as a threat to fossil-fuel jobs. After a year of mass layoffs during the early stages of the pandemic, many in South Texas worried that Democrats might threaten their livelihoods.
And there was another confounding variable in 2020. “Most importantly,” Villalba told me, “you had a once-in-a-lifetime candidate like Donald Trump.” Trump’s iconoclasm and performative machismo appear to have been especially appealing to some Hispanic men. Indeed, while Trump scored significant gains, down-ballot Republican candidates in South Texas saw far more moderate improvements.
Does this mean that Abbott and other Republicans are celebrating too early? Maybe not. Even if O’Rourke wins Hispanics by a large margin, it’s unlikely to derail Abbott’s reelection. The Republican party doesn’t need Hispanic majorities to win statewide offices. Democrats, on the other hand, very much do need to win the vast majority of Hispanic voters if they ever hope to win another statewide election after 27 years in the political wilderness.
Regardless of the percentage of Hispanic votes they win, Republicans might have something fresh to boast about after November: one or two members of Congress representing South Texas, for the first time in history. Monica De La Cruz, an insurance agent who came within three points of unseating a veteran Democratic congressman in 2020, is running again in a district that tilts more to the GOP after last year’s redistricting. And the recent retirement of Filemon Vega, Brownsville’s Democratic congressman, created an opening for a right-wing Latina Republican upstart, Mayra Flores, to win his seat in a special election.
In that context, the optimistic rhetoric from Abbott and other Texas Republicans serves a tangible political purpose: it might spur turnout from conservative Hispanic voters, who’ve historically had little to vote for in the solidly Democratic region. Ultimately, Abbott has every reason to overstate how well he thinks he’ll do. He’s not making predictions; he’s rallying the troops.