How the GOP in the Rio Grande Valley is using faith to draw in Latino voters
▶ Watch Video: CBS Reports: El Poder
Peppered among the lush green oak and palm trees of the Rio Grande Valley, a mostly Hispanic region along the U.S.-Mexico border that has voted solidly Democratic, there are Republican outposts popping up.
The Hidalgo County GOP headquarters was busy on the mid-September day when CBS News knocked on its doors in McAllen, Texas. The foyer was filled with candidate signs and stickers from a slate of Republican candidates. Inside, Hidalgo County GOP Chair Adrienne Pena-Garza was running a phone bank for GOP candidates – something she says was unheard of just a few election cycles ago.
“Family, faith and freedom. I mean, that’s the messaging that’s been working for us,” Pena-Garza said in an interview airing on the special “CBS Reportes: El Poder” streaming on CBS News.
A similar slogan worked for newly elected Rep. Mayra Flores, who became the first Mexican-born woman sworn into Congress in June. Her campaign, with the help of the GOP, spent over a million dollars.
“God, Family, Country” is front and center on the Flores campaign signs that dot the highways and front lawns of homes.
The 36-year-old, who is married to a U.S. Border Patrol agent, won Texas’ 34th Congressional District special election to fill Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela’s seat.
“The Republican Party is investing in the Hispanic community, because they understand that the Hispanic community is the future of this country,” Flores told CBS News in Washington, D.C. “It is time that we talk about our faith and not allow anyone to shame us for believing in God and for fighting for strong family values.”
It’s a message Pastor Luis Cabrera of City Church of Harlingen preaches from the pulpit on Sundays. Cabrera, who identifies as Republican, calls himself Flores’ spiritual counselor.
His evangelical church sits on the access road off a busy highway. A drum kit, along with guitars and other instruments sit on the stage for the musicians who play and pray. A new kind of MAGA flag hangs from the rafters — it reads “Make America Godly Again.”
Cabrera says Flores approached him and said she liked the message and wanted to use it for her campaign.
“I’m like, Are you serious, Mayra? Like, [those are] fighting words. Not everyone’s going to agree,” Cabrera recalled. But Cabrera says Flores insisted.
Cabrera says Hispanic Republican candidates in the Rio Grande Valley who openly talk about their faith are finding sympathetic ears. One issue Cabrera highlighted was gay marriage, which he says shows a stark difference between Democrats and Republicans.
“Their God to them is just obsolete. You know why? Because of our traditional values of a marriage between one man and one woman. They don’t believe in that. They believe in gay marriage, which is — that’s their right. But as a Christian, that affects us. I don’t want my son and daughter to be told it’s okay to be gay. No, it’s not okay to be gay. It’s against the word of God. And so, that right there speaks volumes,” explained Cabrera.
Recent CBS News polling of registered voters shows that nearly half of registered voters, 49%, believe that LGBTQ people will have fewer rights and freedoms if Republicans win control of Congress in the fall.
While campaigning from the pulpit may be taboo in some churches, Cabrera says his church is not a 501(c)3, not a non-profit, so he has no problem talking about his politics to his flock.
“We have the power to elect and we have the power to fire people. That’s awesome. That’s the greatest weapon that we have, but we don’t use. Why not?” Cabrera asked.
Flores supporter Celina Tafolla openly talks about her political views and her faith. Tafolla says she was raised a Democrat, but after President Trump’s election, she decided to not be quiet about being a Republican in the Rio Grande Valley.
“You know, God first. Your loyalty isn’t to a political party, your loyalty is God. And that’s why you should be voting red, because it aligns with our values,” she said.
Discussions about border security envelop the region. Government data shows that this fiscal year, the border patrol made more than 400,000 arrests in the Rio Grande Valley, a record for the sector.
Hidalgo County Democratic chair Richard Gonzales said key issues of the Democratic Party like abortion, gun control and the environment, are not as important to some as the economy, crime and immigration – a major focus for Republicans.
“The biggest misconception is that we are (a) cartel-run, open-borders, poor, crime-ridden city, crime-ridden community. That is absolutely not true,” said Gonzales. “The national [GOP] message was basically, Hey, the Valley is just an open borders area. It’s full of illegal immigrants. They are taking your jobs…taking your money.”
But as campaign season comes to a close, which issues will be decisive in the outcome of the midterm elections?
University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley Political Science professor Mark Kaswan says it’s worth watching the Rio Grande Valley, though he’s not expecting a red wave. There’s a better-than-even chance Democrats will win back Flores seat, Kaswan predicts, though he said her victory has given Rio Grande Valley Republicans hope.
“They have cracked that door open,” Kaswan said. “They see an opportunity to make gains.”
Republicans are continuing to hold onto their lead in the House, though their margins for capturing the majority are growing narrower, according to the CBS News Battleground Tracker. Republicans and Democrats alike are concerned they would have fewer rights and freedoms than they currently have if the opposing party wins, CBS News polls show.