'Texas is a battleground': Latino voters torn between GOP and Democrats ahead of midterm elections

Rick Jervis

LAREDO, Texas -- José Hernandez, 29, is the national Democratic Party's living nightmare: young, bright, Texas Latino -- and Republican. 

The first-generation Mexican American said he has always voted Republican, a trait passed down by his conservative parents. On Tuesday, he planned to vote in the Republican primaries for Texas' 28th District of the U.S. House of Representatives, a seat held for nearly two decades by incumbent Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar

"Your parents are the ones who brought you up, who taught you right from wrong," said Hernandez, who works for the Laredo Housing Authority. "So, you tend to follow them politically."

Democratic activists cheer on voters in Laredo, Texas, during Tuesday's primaries. Longtime Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar will face opponent Jessica Cisneros in a runoff in May.

Voters of the 28th District on Tuesday gave Republicans a ray of hope that they could flip the seat to the GOP when Cuellar failed to avoid a runoff against his more progressive opponent, Jessica Cisneros, in the Democratic primaries. 

If Cisneros wins, Republicans are expected to attack her progressive stands on issues, such as support for Medicare for All and reproduction rights, and could potentially flip the seat to the GOP, according to political analysts. That means the fight for the 28th District will be a focal matchup of the midterm elections – and another sign of the unpredictability of the Texas Latino voter.

"South Texas is a battleground right now," said Jeronimo Cortina, associate director at the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston. "It's going to be extremely interesting to see what happens in the midterms elections."

The 28th District, stretching from Laredo and parts of the Rio Grande Valley up to eastern San Antonio, is a majority-Hispanic district held by Cuellar since 2005.

Cuellar and Cisneros will compete in a runoff election in May. The winner will face the winner of a Republican primary runoff between Cassy Garcia and Sandra Whitten. 

Yard signs for longtime Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar dot a yard outside a polling station in central Laredo. Cuellar will face off against challenger Jessica Cisneros in a May runoff.

Cuellar is considered one of the more conservative Democratic members of the U.S. House, calling for tougher border enforcement and gun rights. He's easily held onto the district for nearly two decades. In January, the FBI raided his Laredo home and campaign offices, potentially tarnishing his image. The government has not released details of the investigation and Cuellar hasn't been charged with any crime. He's denied any wrongdoing.

Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration attorney endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, is considered much more progressive. Besides Medicare for All and abortion rights, the Laredo native supports stricter gun violence prevention measures and LGBTQ+ rights. She first faced Cuellar in 2020, but lost her bid to defeat him in a close primary race. 

For decades, Latinos along the border were expected to vote reliably for Democratic candidates. But that trend has shifted in recent years. Latinos in South Texas, who identify with conservative issues such as border security and the anti-abortion movement and were buoyed by the candidacy of former President Donald Trump, surprised many in 2020 by surging to the polls during the presidential election.

Heavily-Latino border counties in Texas, such as Hidalgo, Starr and Webb, remained Democratic but saw significant gains toward the GOP. In Starr County, which is 96% Hispanic, the number of Trump voters soared from 2,218 in 2016 to 8,224 in 2020 – a 200% jump. Zapata County flipped to Trump. 

Latino voters along the border tend to be more conservative than Hispanic voters in and around large urban centers like San Antonio and Houston, in part because of the cultural differences between the regions, Cortina said. 

"When you encounter Latino voters, it's not a homogenous voting block," he said. 

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, speaks with the media in front of the West Wing after a bipartisan meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Tuesday's votes in the 28th District -- nearly evenly split between Cuellar and Cisneros -- revealed another thorny trend for political strategists trying to decipher and corral the votes of South Texas Latinos: Even as more Latinos identify as Republican, Democratic Latino voters shifted more to the left in backing Cisneros.

Cisneros won big in the areas around San Antonio, which tend to lean more progressive, while Cuellar won more votes in Laredo and along the border, said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.

"We now have a greater number of South Texas Latinos voting Republicans than they have in the past, but you also have a greater number of South Texas Latinos voting progressive in ways they haven’t in the past," Jones said. "South Texas in some ways is polarizing in a way it hasn’t before."

In Laredo, the 28th District's most populous city, many Democrats said Cuellar could hold on to his seat but acknowledged the rising threat of both progressive Democrats and a growing number of Republicans. 

"He has a challenge on his hands," said Eduardo Jaime, 73, a semi-retired attorney and Vietnam War veteran. Jaime joined a group of other activists Tuesday outside a Laredo polling station to cheer on voters and promote local candidates, including his nephew, Ricky Jaime, who was running for Webb County commissioner. 

Jaime said Cuellar has done a lot of good for the region, including directing federal funds to local law enforcement agencies. But the shifting loyalties of South Texans may be catching up with him.

"He shouldn't get too comfortable," he said. "When you start putting down your guard, that's when they hit you."

Democratic candidate Jessica Cisneros (TX-28) speaks during a "Get Out the Vote" rally on Feb. 12, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas.

Cuellar's chances to hold on to his seat narrowed Tuesday, as the incumbent will have to battle back the surging Cisneros, Jones said. The runoff is likely to draw more progressive Democratic voters and puts Cuellar on the defensive, he said.

If Cisneros wins the runoff, Republicans will attack her progressive stands and could potentially flip the seat to Republicans, Jones said. 

"Cuellar is ideologically a perfect fit for the district," he said. "It will be much easier [for Republicans] to defeat Cisneros in November."

Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.