Indeed, for decades, the dominant ideologies in South Texas have been the same as in other rural areas and small towns across the state—that is, conservative. Many Democrats in South Texas are ardent supporters of gun rights who spend fall and winter weekends hunting white-tailed deer. On Sundays, churches—mostly Catholic but also evangelical—swell to the brim. In hotels, mud-caked boots line the hallways at night as oil workers travel from job to job. As nine-term U.S. congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose district stretches from the banks of the Rio Grande all the way to San Antonio, told me, “Aside from our Mexican heritage, much of South Texas has . . . demographic similarities with some of the more conservative strongholds and white rural communities in the state.”
But so much more than just ideology—whether one is conservative or moderate or liberal—determines how a person votes. Cultural factors matter too. While ideology has been strongly predictive of whether white voters opt for Republicans or Democrats since the late eighties, that had not been true of the state’s Hispanic voters. David Shor, an iconoclastic data scientist who has polled South Texas extensively, explains that about 40 percent of American voters are conservative, 40 percent are moderate, and 20 percent are liberal. Those numbers don’t vary much by race or ethnicity, whereas party loyalty does. And for decade after decade, part of being Hispanic in South Texas, just like wrapping tamales on Christmas Eve or listening to Selena at family reunions, meant voting Democratic, even as the party became less welcoming to those with conservative views. What changed in 2020 is that conservative Hispanic South Texans voted like their non-Hispanic white neighbors. Ideology suddenly became polarizing for the group in a way it never had been before.
Many Hispanic South Texans shared something else with non-Hispanic white rural Texans: their racial identity. Hispanic residents of our state are much more likely to identify as white than Hispanic residents of cities elsewhere in the country. With roots many generations deep in lands that were annexed from Mexican control to that of the U.S., many also actively reject being cast as immigrants. In 2020 ignorance of these facts embarrassed state and national Democrats. While Hispanic South Texans are proud of their Mexican heritage, many do not consider themselves to be “people of color” at all.