- Ethnic group is essential in Tuesday's close Texas primary
- Drive through border town leads to one solitary campaign sign
If you drive through dusty Laredo, Texas, down a palm-lined road, past an empty lot, you’ll arrive at 5120 San Francisco Ave.: the site of a Donald Trump sign, a lonely curiosity in the third-largest metro area on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The makeshift wooden sign with red T-R-U-M-P letters glued on it leaned against a peeling-paint fence in front of a brick apartment building. The sign is the handiwork of David R. Cortez, a former Democratic officeholder and son of a Mexican immigrant. Cortez said he wasn’t offended when Trump last year called undocumented immigrants rapists and criminals. Cortez finds the rhetoric refreshing.
“We should welcome immigrants, but let’s do it legally,” Cortez said outside the building he owns. “We have murderers here. We don’t need Mexico’s or Cuba’s.”
Laredo, where 96 percent of residents are Hispanic and Democrats hold almost all local offices, demonstrates in high relief the strains between Republicans and Hispanic voters. Republicans here sympathize with the party’s calls for border security, and have firsthand experience with the economic and criminal consequences of illegal immigration. But they must contend with a campaign in which nativist rhetoric has been a dominant thread of the national conversation.
Trump has made a border wall a centerpiece of his front-running campaign, saying that immigrants are “pouring in” even though their numbers are actually falling. A Washington Post-Univision News poll last week found that 80 percent of Hispanic registered voters had an unfavorable view of the candidate. Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, both of Cuban descent, have clashed over the issue, with Cruz accusing Rubio of having supported an “amnesty.”
Texas is the crowning prize in Republican nominating contests in 13 states Tuesday, the biggest single day of primary season. Most delegates in the state, where 38.6 percent of residents are Hispanics, will be awarded to the top finisher in each congressional district. That makes Latino-majority Democratic border areas almost as important to the outcome as the Republican-dominated interior.
“They could make a difference in a close election if in fact Trump and Cruz are in a dead heat,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
A Feb. 24 poll by Dallas television station WFAA showed Trump in a tie at 32 percent with Cruz, who is seen as needing to win his home state if he wants to remain in the race. Cruz leads Trump among Texas Hispanics by 7 points, according to the poll. A Monmouth University poll released on Feb. 25 shows a much wider lead, with Cruz ahead 38 percent to Trump’s 23 percent.
In a state where Hispanics represent one of every three voters, Trump’s get-tough message on immigration is risky. It nonetheless resonates with some conservative Latinos here in Webb County, which favored Democrat Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by more than 3-to-1 four years ago.
Fred Santos, a Republican, complains that cheap labor has undercut his landscaping business. He says competitors pay undocumented immigrants $40 a day, while he’s shelling out double to hire legal residents.
“I have some friends who are totally against Trump because they say building a wall is going to destroy our economy,” Santos said as he steered his white Toyota Sequoia past ramshackle shops. “I don’t see that. I see drugs and cartel problems.”
Not even Pope Francis’s recent visit to the U.S-Mexico border where he denounced Trump’s wall is enough to deter Trump supporters in a town that is largely Catholic.
Ana Maria Hernandez, 71, a retired school secretary from Laredo whose mother emigrated from Mexico, has voted only for Democrats in presidential races, except John McCain in 2008. She’ll vote for Trump if he’s the nominee.
“I support his aggressiveness, his truthfulness and his firmness,” she said from her modest home decorated with a crucifix and family photos. “He’s not afraid of anybody. I’m just like him. I’m not afraid of anyone.”
Hispanics have a kinship with Republicans on some matters. In Texas, almost 70 percent of Catholics are Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center, often holding conservative beliefs on abortion and marriage. Some 65 percent are homeowners, a status that lends itself to the bootstrapping mentality the party embraces.
Cordelia Flores, a 75-year-old English-Spanish interpreter who lives in Laredo, voted as a Republican for the first time Thursday, an early voting day in Texas, largely because she felt abandoned by the Democratic Party on social issues like abortion. She voted for Rubio, a fellow Catholic, and said Trump’s “silly” rhetoric regarding immigration reveals an Anglo viewpoint that may play better in New York than in Texas.
Javier Elizondo, a certified public accountant, said his support for Cruz has nothing to do with the lawmaker’s ethnicity or Texas roots. Instead he’s drawn to his uncompromising positions on issues from health care to immigration.
“He’s not liked by many Republicans and he’s not liked by Democrats,” Elizondo said. “He’s an outsider and someone who will be more conservative.”
In Texas, the Republican Party has been toiling for years to unlock the power of the Hispanic voting base, the nation’s second largest. In 2009, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the half-Mexican son of former presidential candidate Jeb Bush, helped found the Hispanic Republicans of Texas to spread the party’s message.
In 2014, Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. In the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush won almost half the state’s Hispanic vote, a landslide compared with Bob Dole’s 17 percent in 1996. But by 2012, Romney garnered less than a third after suggesting measures that he said would result in “self-deportation” for the estimated 11.3 million people in the U.S. without papers.
This year, attracting the Hispanic vote may be more challenging than ever as Trump and Cruz have suggested that law enforcement would track down and expel those here without authorization. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, one of the most strident opponents of illegal immigration, on Sunday endorsed Trump, saying he represented the best chance for ridding the U.S. of the undocumented.
Jon Melendez, a senior at Texas A&M International University and president of the Webb County Young Republicans, said that Trump is damaging efforts to diversify the Republican Party.
“It’s sort of a joke that has run on a little too long,” he said.
Still, if Trump is the nominee?
“I can never say I would go against the Republican nominee. But you’re not going to see me urging people to go vote for Trump.”