Narrated by Jessica Burbank
Latino voters in South Texas say that while they align with Democrats on social issues, they feel increasingly alienated from the party when it comes to the economy, which Latinos consistently rank as the issue that matters to them most. Republicans are taking advantage of that and running on issues like jobs, wages, and cost of living, but still passing legislation that hurts working people. We talked to a panel of voters in South Texas and Democratic and Republican strategists to find out how to stop this trend.
Jessica Burbank breaks it down below in this edition of The Classroom by More Perfect Union.
George: I’m tired of seeing politicians — that are lifelong politicians — that are filthy rich. You’re a public servant. How are you a millionaire?
Tammy: They really don’t even think of the working class — the people that are working eight hours a day or more to support their families.
Jessica Burbank: In the last two elections, Democrats have been losing working-class voters and voters of color, groups that were once considered their base. And among Latino voters, it’s especially dramatic, with Democrats losing as much as 55 points in some regions.
National polls have shown that working-class Latinos rank economic issues like the cost of living and wages well above any other issue, but in parts of the country, Democrats have failed to convince voters that they can help people who are struggling.
Now, Democrats are at risk of losing three districts in South Texas that were reliably blue for the last century.
Republicans are running three Latina candidates who are campaigning on the economy and high gas prices and painting both local and national Democrats as out of touch with working-class concerns.
[News clip]: The American families are worried about how they’re going to put food on the table. Gas. They are worried about the economy.
[News clip]: Jessica Garcia, I don’t know what a far-right Latina is, but I am glad–
Jessica: More Perfect Union went to the Rio Grande Valley to a county where Democrats lost 23 points in the last Presidential election, and talked to voters about what politicians need to hear from working-class people.
The voters we spoke with come from different backgrounds. George is a small business owner and identifies as a libertarian. He was vehemently opposed to Donald Trump and sat out the election in 2016, but decided in 2020 that Trump was the better candidate. Tammy has voted Democrat her whole life, but after losing family members to COVID-19 and struggling financially, she doesn’t see enough change happening under Democratic governance. Juan voted Democrat until 2016, when he decided that Trump was the candidate that best represented him. Lianna will be a new voter this November. She organizes with the Rio Grande Valley Democratic Socialists of America, and is skeptical of both parties.
What local issues matter to you?
Tammy Casas: Our biggest problem is wages, wages in the valley. A lot of our guys are having to travel upstate for better wages, for better pensions, for better insurance coverage that isn’t down here.
George Rice: The valley has the potential to become this massive economic powerhouse. Our workforce down here is amazing. We have such a vibrant, strong workforce, and it’s not being utilized yet.
Lianna: I think that’s what the Valley lacks, like we’re too willing to be exploited. That’s what makes us such “good workers,” right? But at what cost? At our health, time at home with our families, just basic needs.
Juan: As educators, and I’m talking about McAllen [Independent School District], while other districts were struggling around our county, we were able to bring those grades up and we actually beat out some of the bigger cities in the state of Texas. But again, we’re not being compensated.
Jessica: Hidalgo County, where our panelists live, has been growing steadily in the last decade. But wages in the area, like Tammy and Juan said, are much lower than they are in the rest of the state of Texas and in the United States more broadly. The region is also heavily uninsured — 33% of people in Hidalgo county have no health insurance — which two of our panelists brought up.
Juan: My daughter right now, she’s got her master’s in occupational therapy, she’s waiting to pass her board exam. And she still can’t afford to pay for Obamacare, so it’s just too much. So for the last three years, he hasn’t had insurance.
Tammy: Either, you have it and you can afford it, or you can’t afford it, and you wind up in Mexico, getting your medications in Mexico. All this stuff is affecting everybody because that’s somebody’s loved one that’s out there.
Which party do you think cares more about workers?
Tammy: I think, at this point, no one
George: I actually agree with them, and I label myself kind of as a conservative. I think it’s a political talking point, but I don’t think either party honestly really cares. I’m a business owner, I have no problem with someone getting rich. I do have a problem with someone getting rich at someone else’s expense. And that’s what we’re seeing. And that’s what people… at least that’s what I’m agitated by.
Tammy: I think at this point, we’ve actually been separated so much from our government, due to the fact that at this point, it actually just concentrates on your bigger towns, bigger cities, and a lot of the actual cities are kind of being left out or forgotten.
Jessica: We reached out to Christina Ramirez, President of NextGen America and former U.S. Senate candidate in Texas about why our panelists feel disconnected and left behind by politicians.
Cristina Ramirez: For me, there’s always been a portion of the Latino electorate that’s been up for grabs. And what’s going to move them is one, actually spending the time and money on our community, and then two, understanding that we are the community that is least likely to go to college, that we are the community that’s least likely to have health care in the state, and that we are the most likely to be poor of any ethnic group. And so if you understand what our families are up against economically, you need to speak to that pain and invest into it.
Jessica: The three neck and neck races happening in South Texas seem to confirm that there were many Democratic voters who were dissatisfied, and Republican candidates have been able to capture these voters.
Jessica: Our panelists live in District 15. In neighboring District 34, Republican Mayra Flores won a surprise victory in last year’s Congressional special election.
[Rep. Mayra Flores in news clip]: You know, we’re all about faith, family, and hard work. That’s exactly who we are.
Jessica: Mayra Flores campaign has gotten a lot of national attention, particularly on conservative media for winning as a tough-on-crime, staunchly anti-abortion candidate.
[News clip]: Yeah, but I mean, it was an overwhelmingly Democratic district.
[Rep. Mayra Flores in news clip]: But we didn’t have the funding before.
Jessica: The National Republican Party and conservative PACs went big for Flores’ campaign, outspending the Democrats 16-1.
[Rep. Steve Scalise in news clip]: Wow, only in America.
Jessica: Flores won by just over 2,000 votes against centrist, pro-life candidate Dan Sanchez, which was enough to feel like a big victory for national Republicans, who have been recruiting and funding young women of color candidates and see Latino voters, in particular, as swayable on issues of policing, border security, and abortion.
[Rep. Mayra Flores in news clip]: Let’s allow them to come here to this country legally, but let’s improve the process.
Jessica: The districts have been redrawn, and Flores is now running against Vincente Gonzalez, a two-term Democrat. District 15 was redrawn to favor Republicans, and now Trump-backed Monica De La Cruz is running against progressive candidate Michelle Vallejo.
Republicans have forced immigration and crime to be the central issues in the district, and Democrats have failed to successfully counter with populist economic messages of their own. Democratic policies are popular with Latino voters in Texas. A poll by Unidos U.S. found that 87% of Latino voters believe that the government should make health care less expensive and more accessible. 74% believe that income inequality was a big problem in America. But even after legislative wins like the Inflation Reduction Act, Republican candidates are making gains in this region.
We asked our panelists one last question: what kind of candidate do you want to see?
Lianna: I think that the more worker movements start, the more the country tries to divide us. It’s likely one huge PR campaign, like one party appeals to one group of people or multiple groups of people, another party, like appeals to another group of people. And they’re just constantly fighting with each other and making us think we gotta fight each other. So that we don’t end up fighting the people who actually own the things correctly own the media outlets who actually own the places we work at.
George: I want a selfless servant. I want a selfless service leader, and we haven’t had one in so damn long down here. You know, I’m tired of seeing politicians that are lifelong politicians that are filthy rich. Like, you’re a public servant. How are you a millionaire? You’ve been a lifelong politician, how the hell are you a millionaire? As a lifelong politician, as a public servant? [Juan]’s an educator. Are you a millionaire?
Juan: Not yet.
George: You’re a public servant. Shouldn’t you be a millionaire? That’s so agitating, seeing these politicians… I think the only politician that we’ve had in the last 30 years that actually got poorer in office was the last president.
Tammy: George is right. You know, at this point, sometime in our lives, we have to make a stand. The more you just linger and say, okay, it’s going to change tomorrow. It’s going to be better next year. Sometimes it isn’t. It just gets worse.
Lianna: The more worker movements start, the more the country tries to divide us, so that we don’t end up fighting the people who actually own these things — who actually own the media outlets, who actually own the places we work at..
George: Me and her, you could tell that we completely disagree on how to get to where we need to go. But, at the same time, you could tell that she gives a shit and she cares. We can come in the middle. We just need the right person that actually cares about the community and cares about the people that are going to represent us properly. And we haven’t had that from either side.
Jessica: No matter who wins this election, it’s clear Democrats can’t keep ignoring the shifting tide in South Texas. This trend isn’t going away in 2024 either. If Democrats don’t campaign on the economic justice issues that matter to working people in the Rio Grande Valley, the Republicans will continue to make gains.
For our panelists in Texas, neither party right now seems to care about the high cost of living, healthcare, or corporate power.
If Democrats want to win back these voters, they need to demonstrate again that they are the party for working people.