SANDERSON — Dale Lynn Carruthers had always been a Democrat.
Growing up in the small, predominantly Hispanic city of Sanderson near the border in West Texas, everyone she knew belonged to the party, which had long been dominant in the region. So when she ran for a seat on the Terrell County Commissioners Court for the first time in 2018, there was no question that she’d do so as a Democrat.
But after she became county judge in 2021, things started to change. President Joe Biden took office and promised to overturn many of Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies. At the same time, residents living in Terrell County, which has a population of less than 1,000, started reporting a significant increase in the number of migrants coming through the rough terrain.
Ranchers complained that large groups of migrants were entering through their border-adjacent land, cutting high fences, which risked setting their animals loose, damaging the water lines that supply their vast ranches in a semi-arid climate and making it harder for them to tend to their livestock.
On her family’s 17,000-acre ranch, Carruthers saw the same problems. Visitors who came to hunt wild game started stumbling upon the bodies of migrants who apparently died of heat while making the journey. One day, her husband was outside feeding the animals when he saw state police arresting a group of 49 migrants. They worried about the safety of their family.
But Democrats nationally weren’t talking about the border issues her community was experiencing firsthand. They were critical of efforts led by Republicans like Gov. Greg Abbott to build a border wall and increase the presence of law enforcement. Democrats, Carruthers said, weren’t listening. So she switched parties.
And so did many others. The county’s clerk and treasurer also became Republicans, as have most of the elected officials in county government.
“Seeing the lack of support from the federal government has really impacted the community and they’re looking and leaning towards the Republican Party,” Carruthers said.
In 2014, the percentage of registered voters casting ballots in the Republican primary in Terrell County was 12%. By 2022, that percentage had more than doubled — with 31% of the county’s registered voters casting ballots in the GOP primary compared to 10% in the Democratic primary. It was the first time in at least eight years that Republicans voting in the Terrell County primary outnumbered Democrats.
The shift in allegiance is being replicated across the Texas-Mexico border and is encouraging for Republicans who are campaigning on border security and making a big push to win over Hispanic voters. It is also concerning for Democrats who have long held sway in these border and South Texas communities.
In 15 counties along the Texas-Mexico border, participation in Republican primaries has grown steadily since 2014. That year, 23,243 voters participated in a Republican primary, accounting for about 2% of voters. This year, 54,085 voters cast ballots in the GOP primary, making up 4% of voters.
While Democrats voting in primaries still far outnumber Republicans in those counties, the trendline is moving in the opposite direction. In 2014, more than 122,000 people turned out for a Democratic primary in border counties, accounting for 11% of voters. But after nearly 214,000 voters cast ballots in the 2020 Democratic primary, that number fell to 131,189 this year, making up less than 10% of voters in the region.
Juanita Martinez, the Democratic Party chair in Maverick County, which is 95% Hispanic, acknowledged the Republican Party has grown rapidly in her area in recent years and is mounting vociferous challenges to established Democrats in her South Texas community. Only one candidate running for a county office had run as a Republican in Maverick since 2016. But this year, the GOP has mustered eight candidates for local office.
Still, Martinez believes that most of the area’s voters are still with Democrats, and the local party is gearing up to defend their political offices against the GOP’s push.
“Everybody knows the Republicans have been targeting the border,” Martinez told a recent meeting of volunteers preparing for a Beto O’Rourke event in the county seat of Eagle Pass. “We’re mostly a Democratic community, so we have to work it, work it, work it. No way in hell can we ever let even one Republican get into office. That’s our main objective: Keep Maverick County blue.”
A Republican rise
A few years ago, a Republican candidate courting votes in South Texas or along the border was a rare sight. But bolstered by Trump’s better-than-expected performance in heavily Hispanic regions of South Texas in 2016 and 2020, the GOP began to target those voters. Border security and immigration made up a big part of the Republican messaging, but so were other social issues like opposition to abortion and support for gun rights.
At the top of the ticket, Abbott, who has long pursued Hispanic voters in the area, has homed in on South Texas as a priority of his campaign efforts. In April, speaking before the Texas Latino Conservatives luncheon while in San Antonio, Abbott boldly declared that he would win the Hispanic vote over Democrat Beto O’Rourke.
In 2020, Republican Monica De La Cruz came within 3 percentage points of unseating Democratic congressman Vicente Gonzalez in Congressional District 15, a heavily Hispanic border district that includes McAllen. This year, De La Cruz is running for the same seat after Gonzalez was drawn out of the district and moved over to neighboring District 34. There, he will compete against another conservative Latina, Mayra Flores, who is the incumbent congresswoman after winning a special election this year to replace Democrat Filemon Vela, who had resigned before the end of his term.
The Republican push has also trickled down to the local level. In places like Maverick County, the local GOP was almost nonexistent a few years ago. Martinez said poll workers used to joke on Election Day about whether all the Republicans in their precincts had voted yet.
“They would name them on one hand,” Martinez said. “Usually, in a county like ours, if you were running and you won the [Democratic] primary, that was it, you won. Because there were no Republicans.”
But Democrats aren’t laughing this year. Fueled by financial support from Republican groups like Project Red Texas, which is focused on electing Republicans to local government, the Maverick County GOP’s candidates are well funded, putting up election signs at some of the most prominent intersections in Eagle Pass. At some intersections, posters for GOP candidates stand alone without any sign from their Democratic counterparts with less than two months until Election Day.
Republicans are also competing for local elections in nearby counties like Val Verde and Dimmit, and in Starr County in the Rio Grande Valley.
Starr County has shown other troubling signs for Democrats. Last year, state Rep. Ryan Guillen, who had served in the statehouse for 19 years as a conservative Democrat, switched to the GOP. Guillen cited the Democratic Party’s refusal to engage on border security and its impact on oil and gas jobs in his district as reasons for his change.
In Eagle Pass, a city of about 30,000, trucks sport bumper stickers that read “I am the elephant in the room” with pictures of the GOP’s mascot and “Let’s Go Brandon,” a political slogan that’s used by Republicans to substitute for a profane insult to Biden. One house along a main thoroughfare in town boasts a large “Vote Trump, End abortion” sign even though the former president hasn’t declared he’s running for reelection.
Even those shows of support are signs of the GOP’s growth, said Alfredo “Freddy” Arellano III, a local party activist. In 2018, when former state Sen. Pete Flores was running in a special election that he would eventually win, voters would not put campaign signs in their yards for fear of being ostracized for being Republicans. But since 2020, when Arellano served as the chair of the local GOP and organized caravans of trucks called “Trump trains” to show support for the former president, interest in the party has gone up.
“We went from nobody wanting a sign for Sen. Flores to giving away over 500 for President Trump [in 2020],” Arellano said. “And, right now, with Abbott they sent 300 and they’re almost all gone.”
Many of the new Republicans in Maverick County are former Democrats who say the increase in migrants crossing through their region was a major factor in their decision to switch parties. In July, Eagle Pass’ region of the border, which stretches north to the city of Del Rio, reported about 50,000 apprehensions of migrants — 20,000 more than the number of people in the entire city of Eagle Pass.
Ana Gabriela Derbez, a candidate for justice of the peace, wears a red “Defend the Border” cap as she discusses how the region has seen a massive increase in migrant crossings over the last two years. She’s a former Democrat who voted twice for Barack Obama. But in recent years, she said she reconsidered her political leanings as Republicans have drawn her in with their views on guns, abortion and immigration.
Voters she talks to gripe about the use of taxpayer dollars to hold and process migrants caught by immigration officials and to transport them to other parts of the country, while local residents in the impoverished area struggle economically. The median household income in the county is $41,385, and 1 in 5 of its residents live in poverty.
“They are having a hard time with their paychecks and with their jobs, and making ends meet and all of this help is being given to illegals instead of them,” she said. “That is a very serious issue.”
Immigration was also the issue that moved Rosa Arellano to switch parties. In 2016, during Trump’s first campaign for president, she was a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer whose job required her to testify in court when migrants who crossed the border had previously been convicted of violent crimes. She said she knew of the “bad hombres” Trump was referring to during a presidential debate as he advocated for tougher immigration rules. And she thought the ensuing criticism Trump received for the comment was unfair.
“That’s when I started to open up my eyes,” she said.
She considered herself a Democrat but was not a regular voter. After Trump’s run, she decided that the Republican Party aligned more with her socially conservative values on issues like border security, government assistance and abortion. Now, her whole family is politically active in getting local Republicans elected to office. Her son, Freddy Arellano, served as Maverick County GOP’s chair when he was 19.
“We’re seeing a change here,” Freddy Arellano said. “You could tell what the border wants. It was border security, abortion and election integrity. Those things stood out more than anything.”
Even among border Democrats, immigration and border security are priority issues. State Rep. Eddie Morales, a Democrat from Eagle Pass, was one of the co-authors of a law passed last year that appropriated $1.8 billion in state funds for additional border security that would aid Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star,” which has sent thousands of Department of Public Safety troopers and National Guard service members to patrol the border. Immigrant rights advocates and some Texas Democrats have called on the Justice Department to investigate the state mission’s treatment of migrants and use of spending.
But Morales said he represents the nuanced approach voters in his region have toward the issues. While he supported the border security funding, part of which would also go toward building border wall or fencing, Morales also supports guest worker programs for migrants that would allow them to live in the country legally, letting immigration authorities monitor their whereabouts while at the same time providing much-needed labor sources for ranchers in the state. Morales wrote Abbott in May asking him to support the policy but has not received an answer.
Morales also wants to see better treatment for the migrants who are crossing the border into his city.
“Even [for] Democrats, it’s important to the community here, the border issues we’re facing,” he said. “[But] of course, we need to do it in a way where we are respectful to those that are coming.”
That sentiment resonates with voters like Amerika Garcia Grewal, a Democrat in Eagle Pass, who counts immigration as one of her priorities this election cycle. Her father carries water bottles in his car that he can give to struggling migrants he sees walking alongside the city’s roads. She wants to see migrants treated humanely and is turned off by how many Republicans refer to them as “illegals.”
“They are people,” she said. “How would you want to be treated if you no longer had a home and couldn’t survive where you’re living?”
Despite the GOP’s push in border areas, Democratic leaders are quick to point out that participation in Republican primaries is still far short of their own. In Maverick County, for example, only 624 voters participated in the 2022 GOP primary in March.
That’s major growth from the 79 voters who participated in the county’s Republican primaries in 2014, but less than 10% of the 6,656 voters who participated in the county’s Democratic primaries this year.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said voters in border regions aren’t swayed by a Republican Party that claims to be for “family values” but won’t increase funding for schools and the health care system or fight for a higher minimum wage to support low-income families. Those are all issues that are front and center for Democratic campaigns and voters along the border.
“They can try to make these arguments left and right in South Texas but our folks are not dumb,” Hinojosa said. “They understand who’s on their side and who’s not.”
To counter the GOP’s offensive on immigration in border regions, Hinojosa said his party plans to put together strong “Get out the vote” campaigns to remind Democrats why their party is the best choice for them and to make sure that voters are getting to the polls.
But it’s not just immigration that motivates South Texas and border voters. He said voters want to see gun safety measures to prevent mass shootings like the one that killed 21 people at a Uvalde elementary school in May, including 19 children.
That is the top issue for Rogelio Mancha Jr., a Democrat who has several relatives, including a sister, who are schoolteachers. Republicans in Texas have largely signaled resistance to any measure that would restrict gun access.
“There needs to be a big change,” Mancha said. “I worry about not just my family, but other people involved in the schools. There shouldn’t be innocent lives taken away.”
A political realignment
While Latino voters along the border have traditionally been conservative on social issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights, fueled by traditional Christian values, they tend to reject polarizing views on those fronts, said Jason Villalba, the founder of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation and a former GOP state legislator.
“Hispanics in [South Texas] don’t vote on the color of the jersey, they vote based on candidates that will have the best impact in their communities and in their lives,” he added. “They vote for jobs, employment, security and education. Those will win the hearts and minds of Hispanics, regardless of party.”
And younger generations are leaving behind their parents’ conservative views and trending more progressive, said Jeronimo Cortina, a political scientist at the University of Houston who studies Latino voters.
He pointed to the recent close race between Cuellar and liberal champion Jessica Cisneros in Laredo as evidence of that shift. Cuellar, a 17-year incumbent who is the only anti-abortion Democrat remaining in Texas’ congressional delegation, edged out Cisneros, a fiery liberal who had been endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, by only 289 votes.
Cortina said he sees a “political realignment” happening among Latino voters that will make political races in border areas interesting over the next few years.
“You have an opportunity for both parties to make special inroads, but the interesting point here is that the inroads are going to be made in such ways that you have to take into account generations,” Cortina said. “Are [Republicans] betting on older Latinos going out to vote and give them some advantage in this cycle? And are Democrats trying to make inroads in terms of trying to lure to the Democratic Party more progressive and younger Latinos?”
Freddy Arellano, the former Democrat who now helps local Republicans with their campaigns in Maverick County, is undaunted by the trend lines of young Latino voters and said he will push to make the region a GOP battleground.
“I know that we can win over young Latinos,” Arellano said. “I look forward to inspiring a lot of young people to go out and vote for the Republican Party.”
Martinez, the Democratic chair, said she’s going to work just as hard to prevent that.
“We’re going to fight tooth and nail to keep our county blue,” she said. “Over my dead body we’ll let this county go red.”
Carla Astudillo contributed to this report.
Disclosure: University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.