The G.O.P.’s ‘Wildest Dream’


Latino voters have recently shifted toward the Republican Party. Most still vote for Democrats, but the margin has shrunk.

One sign of the shift is in Texas’ majority-Latino 34th Congressional District, which recently elected Mayra Flores, a conservative Republican, to serve out the remaining term of a Democrat who resigned in March. To put Flores’s election in context of the larger shift, today’s newsletter talks with Jennifer Medina, a Times reporter who writes about national politics and profiled Flores this week.

Ian: How did you meet Flores?

Jennifer: I met her almost a year and a half ago when I went to the Rio Grande Valley, in South Texas, to try to understand why Latino voters there swung toward Donald Trump in 2020. I came across a whole group of women who drove a lot of the change. They’d organized “Trump Trains” and done Hispanic outreach for the Republican Party. A lot of them, including Flores, were married to Border Patrol agents and used that as the source of their energy and support for Trump.

Flores won her special election last month pretty easily, despite being a first-time candidate running in a historically Democratic district. She seems to symbolize Republican hopes that Latinos will increasingly support the party. How was she received in Washington?

She was treated like a rock star. After her swearing-in, she did a press conference with Kevin McCarthy and other Republicans. The placard on the lectern said “Historic.” Republicans have been criticized for being anti-immigrant, obviously, and here’s a woman who not only is an immigrant but who worked in the fields alongside her parents as a farmworker.

Flores has described herself as Democrats’ worst nightmare, but she was also Republicans’ wildest dream. She’s the first Mexican-born woman in Congress, and the Republican Party completely embraced her.

Flores has voiced conspiratorial views, suggesting that the Jan. 6 attack was a “setup.” You repeatedly asked her whether President Biden won the 2020 election, and she kept responding that he was “the worst president.” Was that awkward?

I don’t think it was a surprise to her that I asked. I think she’d been asked that question before, knew what she wanted to say and stuck to the script. I gave her multiple opportunities to clarify. I actually said, “I’m not trying to be cute, I’m really trying to understand.” She said, “That’s my statement.”

Flores told you she voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but grew disillusioned with Democrats and enthusiastically backed Trump. Have voters in her district similarly shifted?

Flores won a low-turnout election, so we’re talking about a smallish slice of voters. But, almost by definition, she received support from people who voted Democrat in the past.

I met a retired couple who, unlike many of her most ardent supporters, were devoted Catholics, not evangelicals. They were warm and inviting, and I sat on their couch for an hour listening to their political trajectory. They had voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and considered themselves moderates. But the husband, especially, had started to feel like undocumented immigrants were getting welfare benefits that they shouldn’t, and that Democrats were increasingly hostile to anybody who was anti-abortion. They voted for Trump in 2020 and felt like Flores represented what they wanted to see: somebody fed up with Democrats and willing to criticize them loudly.

You describe Flores’s district, which borders Mexico, as “politically liberal yet culturally conservative.” What does that mean?

It’s a place where law enforcement is revered. For a lot of people, law enforcement — not only the police, but also the Border Patrol and sheriffs — is the best path to the middle class. Churches are crowded on Sundays. A lot of small evangelical churches have opened up and are growing. You see American flags on the backs of cars or in front of houses and businesses.

People are connected to their families. They get together often. Many residents see those ideals reflected more in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party. Flores’s slogan — “God, family, country” — spoke to a lot of voters.

Immigration seems like a complex issue there. Flores is an immigrant who campaigned on border security, and many of her voters have family who at some point crossed the border.

A lot of them trace their ancestry back to Mexico. The border is in their everyday lives. To hear Flores tell it, the border is in disarray, though not everybody in her district thinks that way. People who support her and support Trump make a big distinction between legal and illegal immigration. They say a version of, “Nobody who’s coming in now is doing it the right way. People should get in line and do it the way we did it.”

They also couch their support for closing the border or putting up a border wall in terms of human trafficking, drugs and gangs. There’s a sense that Mexico and the border are more dangerous now. But a lot of people I talked to, including Republicans, have empathy for immigrants. Even if they despise current policy, there’s a notion of “We want to help them.”

Latino voters’ rightward shift isn’t just a South Texas phenomenon. What other factors play a role nationally?

This is the question that I’m constantly trying to figure out. You can’t overgeneralize. What’s true about Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley may not be true about Latino voters in New Mexico, South Florida, Virginia or Pennsylvania. In Florida, there’s anti-socialism sentiment. The border is an issue elsewhere.

But I think a lot of it has to do with religion. A growing segment of Hispanic evangelicals feels much more tied to the evangelical movement than to any sort of Latino political identity.

More about Jennifer: She joined The Times 20 years ago as an intern after graduating from the University of Southern California. She has covered education, immigration and the 2020 election. She lives in Los Angeles and considers herself a committed Zumba and hip-hop dancer.

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