H.L. Mencken, one of the most acerbic newspaper writers in U.S. history — a man who made brutal fun of pious Tennesseans during the Scopes “monkey trial” and vilified FDR over the New Deal — generated a great volume of angry mail. This was in the days when readers had to actually put pen to paper, fold the paper into an envelope, address it and spend a few pennies to send it, back when pennies were worth something. 

Mencken employed a stock response, perhaps partly because of the volume and partly because, well, he was H.L. Mencken.

“Dear Sir (or Madam),” he would would write, “you may be right.”

It was pure Mencken: respectful in form, dismissive in spirit. 

Mencken was brought to mind last week when I received a biting email responding to my column pushing back on the long-held Democratic notion that the rising number of Latinos in Texas would turn the state politically purple or even blue. Instead, it would be the Republicans themselves, I argued, with laws on abortions, guns and transgender children that are increasingly out of step with public opinion. 

But I couldn’t use Mencken’s words on this correspondent, because quite clearly his criticism was right. I had repeated some conventional wisdom that was erroneous. Here’s the critique:

“Why has everyone forgotten that W got 49% of the Latino vote for governor in 1998 and that Reagan, GHW and Bush all did better than Trump? Short memories by responsible reporters and columnists?”

At least he called me “responsible.”

Lionel Sosa, who wrote that email, has a reason to remember those numbers. Until Donald Trump took over the Republican Party, he was a major factor in improving the performances of Republicans among Latinos. As the head of what became the nation’s largest Latino advertising agency, he lent his considerable skills to the campaigns of each of the Republican leaders he cited.

Sosa first became involved in political advertising when U.S. Sen. John Tower asked him to help woo the Latino vote in his 1978 reelection bid. Sosa said Tower then showed he meant it, first by putting up $500,000, which was a lot more money in 1978 than today, for the effort.

“And he worked it,” Sosa said. “He went to a lot of doors, and had me film him doing it. He wanted me to document all that. We did, and and put together the Corrido de John Tower. The corrido is still on YouTube.”

The minute-long TV ad shows Tower working the Latino community in large groups and one-on-one encounters as a male vocalist sings his virtues in Spanish.

“I didn’t know shit about politics,” Sosa said. “I just knew if you invite a Latino to the party, they will come, they will stay a long time and they will bring the whole family.”

The result: Tower beat Democrat Bob Krueger by just 12,189 votes while claiming 37% of the Latino vote, up from highs in the single-digits for Republicans until that time. Tower was so impressed and grateful that he persuaded a Wall Street Journal reporter to do an article on Sosa. The article appeared on the Journal’s front page and resulted in Sosa’s agency being sought out by the likes of American Airlines, Procter & Gamble and Anheuser-Busch. 

It also resulted in Tower persuading Ronald Reagan two years later to sign Sosa for his presidential campaign. 

Sosa told me he was contacted by the infamous Brad Parscale to work on the Trump campaign.

“I said I only would do it if [Trump] would apologize for calling Mexicans rapists and murderers,” Sosa said. “He would also have to promise not to insult us again. Also I said he’d have to pay me $75,000 a month.”

That, of course, didn’t happen.

While Sosa chided me and others for thinking that Republican inroads among Latino voters was new, he agreed that the current Republican leadership could lead the way to electing Democrats to statewide office once again, but it wouldn’t be because of shifting Latino voters. 

Much has been made of the fact Trump did much better in the heavily Latino Rio Grande Valley in 2020 than he did 2016, even carrying some counties Hillary Clinton had easily won. Many explanations have been offered, including that Biden’s Democrats didn’t work as hard and that Biden threatened the oil and gas industry.

I’m sure there is some truth to these and other theories, but I think another factor is in play. Mexican Americans are very much Americans. As America’s political parties have increasingly divided into rural and small town Republicans and urban Democrats, it’s hardly surprising to see Latinos do the same.

In El Paso County, which is 83% Latino and includes the state’s sixth largest city, Joe Biden’s 66.66% in 2020 nearly matched Hillary Clinton’s 69% in 2016.

In 2020, Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth, became the last major urban county to cease voting Republican. In 2016, Trump carried the county by 57,000 votes. In 2020, Biden won by 1,800

Meanwhile, as Texas added 4 million people in the most recent Census, it is almost entirely in urban areas. Rural populations are shrinking. Consider this conclusion in a report titled “2020 picture of Texas comes into focus: A diverse state dominated by major metros,” released by the Kinder Institute of Urban Research at Rice University:

“Mirroring a national trend, more than half the state’s counties (143 out of 254) shed on average about 11% of their population, or 97,062 residents total. Two-thirds of these are considered rural, but there were 15 smaller metro counties that shrank, including those around Wichita Falls and Amarillo. 

“Only one rural county grew at a faster rate than the state overall — Gaines County, just north of Midland area, which grew by 23%.”

So Sosa is right in thinking that some media reports are making too much of Trump’s gains in the Rio Grande Valley. This data indicates that while Trump did better among Valley Latinos, the broader Trump Country in Texas is losing population. Yet, Texas Republican leaders are still arguing for the benefit of their primary voters over who among them loves Trump the most.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.