For decades Texas Democrats, who have wandered in the desert for nearly 30 years since last winning a statewide office, have held to the belief that the state’s ethnic demographics make their return to glory inevitable.

The Hispanic population in Texas, which votes heavily Democratic, was 25.5% of the state’s population in 1990. The official tally in the 2020 Census was 39.7%. That was just 1.5% behind the proportion of the population that is made up of non-Hispanic white people.

Last week the Census Bureau announced that Hispanic people nationwide were undercounted by 4.9%, while non-Hispanic white people were overcounted by 1.64%. If those numbers held in Texas — and there are reasons to believe the undercount here was even higher — then the Hispanic population has likely already surpassed the non-Hispanic white population in Texas.

And the trend will continue. Not only is there heavy Hispanic immigration, but Hispanic people had 48% of the births in Texas. Non-Hispanic white people had 33%.

But a funny thing happened along the way to Democratic resurgence. More Hispanic voters started voting Republican — especially in the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley. In the 2020 presidential election, Starr County, whose population of 96,000 is 96% Hispanic, President Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, but by just 52% to 47%. That was Trump’s best performance in the Valley, but his numbers throughout the area stunned Democrats. 

To put it in historical perspective, consider Roy Barrera Jr.’s 1986 race for attorney general as a Republican against Democratic incumbent Jim Mattox. I joined Barrera, an attractive candidate who had the backing of major Republican leaders and financial backers, for a campaign swing through extreme South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley.

On our first stop, in Port Isabel near Brownsville, he was greeted by about a dozen people. They explained why another dozen or so Republicans couldn’t make it — illness, out-of-town guests and such. Other “crowds” weren’t much better. At one point he heard of a massive Hispanic family reunion and changed his course to work the crowd. He entered a large hall while a youth talent show was underway, and was quickly escorted out by a few formidable young men.

Barrera made a strong showing, losing to Mattox 53% to 45%, but he did not win the Hispanic vote. His showing was particularly weak in the Valley, including a few sparsely populated counties where he received no votes.

So what happened? Have Hispanic voters changed? Some, I’m sure. But much more importantly, the political parties have changed. From the Civil War until the late 20th century, the Texas Democratic Party, as in the deep South, was mostly a conservative party. The party enforced a “whites only” rule until the U.S. Supreme Court finally banned it in 1944.

The reversal began in 1964 when, after passing the landmark Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” Just four years later, Richard Nixon initiated the Southern Strategy that has worked well for the Republican Party ever since. Until then, the parties did not differ radically. Nixon and John F. Kennedy were not far apart on issues. 

The national consensus extended to the media, and for many years news coverage was dominated by three networks reading from the same songbook. Since then the parties have sorted themselves into the urban Democratic Party and the rural and small-town Republican Party — with the suburbs in play. The internet and cable news networks, Fox News and MSNBC especially, enable liberals and conservatives to live in separate “realities.” Racial attitudes were joined by guns and abortion as profoundly divisive issues. 

Tip O’Neill, the Boston politician who ran the House of Representatives as its speaker from 1977 to 1987, used to say that “all politics is local,” a phrase he may have learned from his father. Today it is probably more accurate to say all politics is national. 

In February, the Houston Chronicle reported the results of its attempts to question all 143 candidates running for Congress in the Texas Republican primary (as well as scouring their social media pages and websites) for their stances on “voter fraud” and the legitimacy of Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

“Of the 87 with discernible stances on the issue of voter fraud, at least 42 have said outright that the 2020 election was stolen, called the results illegitimate or said they would have voted not to certify,” the Chronicle wrote. “Another 12 candidates have said there was enough fraud or irregularities to cast doubt on the results of the election. Twenty candidates are campaigning on the need to combat fraud, but did not appear to have taken a stance on the 2020 election.”

Of the answers they were able to get, the Hearst newspaper said it was able to confirm “just 13 Republican candidates who say the results were legitimate.”

Personally, I don’t for a minute believe only 13 actually believe that, considering the herculean and fruitless national Republican effort to find any meaningful levels of election fraud. But they may be correct that their own primary voters — only about 12% of the state’s registered voters — believe that the election was stolen, convinced of it by Trump and other party leaders and their wing of the media. 

In order to appeal to that small but passionate segment of the electorate, Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have joined Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz as culture warriors. 

They supported an abortion law that has avoided Constitutional issues in the courts by having a ban on abortions enforced not by the state but by private citizens anywhere in world who can sue those who assist in abortions for a minimum bounty of $10,000. 

They have accused school librarians of providing “pornography” for children because some books present gays as sympathetic humans.

They have passed a law making it dangerous to teach accurately the history of slavery and racism in Texas because it might make white children uncomfortable.

And they have continued escalating the war on families with transgender children by declaring the treatments recommended by mainline medical associations as criminal child abuse. Paxton issued an official opinion suggesting that it could be a crime for teachers, psychologists and other professionals not to report loving families to Child Protective Services. 

Meanwhile a recent Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll found that 63% of Texans oppose efforts to remove books from public school libraries, 47% strongly opposing. Just 29% support such removals, with 13% strongly supporting them.

Some 50% of Texans oppose restrictions on teaching about historical racism in Texas, with 35% doing so strongly. Meanwhile, 37% of those polled support such restrictions, 23% strongly.

I haven’t found any Texas polls on the subject, but a national PBS NewsHour/Marist poll last year found nearly two-thirds of Americans oppose state laws that would criminalize gender transition-related medical care for minors and only 28% support such laws. Among Republicans, 55% opposed laws to criminalize transgender care for minors and 38% supported them. 

When it comes to more mainstream practical issues, Republicans are more in sync with the public on border and immigration concerns, but substantial majorities of voters support expanding Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act.

So it won’t be ethnic demographics that turns Texas purple. More likely, it will be Republicans. 

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.