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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politics

Republicans are running their most diverse slate of candidates ever. Will voters follow?

Dave is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Washington Post. Sign up for Americana to get his coverage of the national political scene in your inbox twice a week.

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Title iconThe News
Republican Rep. Mayra Flores at an event in Weslaco, Texas. October 22, 2022.
David Weigel

WESLACO, Tex. – In 11 days, Republicans are on track to elect more Black, Hispanic, and Asian members of Congress than they ever have before.

Three of them, dubbed the “triple threat” by GOP strategists, are running in the Rio Grande Valley, where Democrats have lost ground after a century of easy wins. And they’re campaigning as MAGA conservatives, portraying the party most Latinos still vote for as “open border” elitists who view patriotic Americans with contempt.

“The Democrat Party, they don’t see us as Americans,” Rep. Mayra Flores told a crowd here at the Mid Valley Assembly, a church less than nine miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, at a conservative summit last weekend. “I think it took Mayra Flores to become a member for them to be for deportation. It’s like, go back to Mexico, go back to Mexico!”

Flores, who won a June special election that national Democrats opted not to spend in, is one of 19 non-white Republicans in the House. That number will double if the party wins and holds the seats marked competitive by the Cook Political Report, and could go higher if more of the party’s 67 non-white candidates can pull upsets.

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And that diversification has happened without the compromises that Republicans once thought they’d have to make to broaden their appeal – a shift left on immigration to win more Latino and Asian votes, or an embrace of criminal justice reform to attract more Black votes. They’ve run as fiscal and cultural conservatives, jabbing at “woke” progressives, and embracing the Trump-era border policies that Democrats expected to wreck Republican outreach to non-white voters.

“We don’t need 87,000 more IRS agents,” said Cassy Garcia, who worked for the Trump administration and Sen. Ted Cruz before challenging Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar this year, at the Saturday forum. “What we need are 87,000 more border patrol agents.”

Democrats saw their problems in south Texas coming two years ago, when Donald Trump ran far ahead of his 2016 numbers in the region and first-time candidate Monica De La Cruz nearly defeated Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez.

“Our support for strong border security is one of the major reasons why Hispanic Americans are joining our movement by the millions and millions and millions,” Trump said at a Saturday rally in South Texas, just two hours from the candidate forum.

The new, Republican-drawn map made the 15th district, which stretches from San Antonio in the north to McAllen in the south, substantially more winnable for De La Cruz. National Democrats have abandoned this year’s nominee, Michelle Vallejo, while Gonzelez is facing Flores in the neighboring district where both of them live.

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“There are always going to be Latinos who vote Republican because of various issues,” said Yvonne Gutierrez, the managing director of the Latino Victory Project, which has continued to invest in the De La Cruz/Vallejo race. “But that is not the predominant sentiment.”

Still, in Texas, and in other competitive parts of the country where Republicans nominated non-white candidates, Democrats hoped that the GOP gains were flukes – and that conservative nominees would struggle to flip swing seats.

In Michigan, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent six figures to help John Gibbs, a Black Trump administration veteran, push past Rep. Peter Meijer, a white Republican who’d voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 riot. In Connecticut, Democrats portrayed George Logan, a black state senator, as an anti-abortion extremist. In Texas, Gonzales has gone after Flores for sharing conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

In 2020, President Biden carried all of those districts. All three are competitive now, and polls have found Republicans holding onto gains with non-white voters that they made in 2020. Dan Sanchez, the Democrat who lost the June special election, said that his party had made a strategic error by ignoring his race, allowing Flores to build name recognition and a campaign war chest when it could have stopped her by turning out the base.

“She was appealing to the Hispanic, uneducated voter because she was from Mexico, and she was the quote-unquote ‘American dream,’” said Sanchez. “Forget about the fact that her ideals go against a lot of the needs and benefits of the Latino population down here.”

Republicans see it differently. With economic angst showing up among voters of all races, they believe national Democrats are stumbling in ways that help non-white candidates in particular.

Flores, Garcia, and De La Cruz have mocked progressive groups for using the academic term “Latinx,” rarely used by Latinos themselves; they’ve reminded voters how Jill Biden called South Texas Latinos “as unique as the breakfast tacos” in San Antonio, a clunker in a prepared speech that the First Lady quickly apologized for.

South Texas Democrats haven’t made those mistakes, and have separated themselves from the national party on a few issues – on abortion, and on the U.S.-Mexico border, criticizing the Biden administration’s changes to what Trump left behind. Largely in agreement on the policy, Garcia and Flores make the issue personal. Both are married to border patrol agents, and both say they’d go after the progressives who’ve demeaned them.

In a short interview, Flores said that she would vote to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and that she wanted to keep a Trump-era order, repeatedly denounced by progressives, that expels asylum-seekers. The Democratic candidates agree on the second part.

“I knew something like this was coming,” Cueller said in an interview. “We're seeing exactly what I’d said was going to happen, where they were going to try to paint Democrats as being weak on border security.”

Joey Cepeda, who owned a home alarm business, said that he hadn’t bothered voting at all until he backed Trump in 2016. He’d been selling more alarm systems to locals who worried about “illegals” crossing onto their property, and while he’d heard Democrats denounce the Trump agenda as racist, he didn’t take it seriously.

“They’re using that card too much,” said Cepeda, 42. “Especially when they’re the party of the KKK.”

undefined headshotDavid 's view

For a long time, Republicans thought they had to choose one of two options: Restrict legal immigration, which produced what Rush Limbaugh called “automatic Democrat voters,” or appeal to non-white voters, who’d be turned off by a hardline immigration position. It is clearer than ever that Republicans don’t have to choose, and some of the candidates who excite the party the most are non-white conservatives who can argue against liberal race and immigration policy while laughing at accusations that they’re “racist.”

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg has been on a mission to debunk the idea that Republicans are gaining ground with Latino voters in the Trump era. On a call with reporters last week, he went race by race across the southwest to argue that Democrats continued to put up strong margins among non-white voters, which helps explain their resilience in places like Arizona and Colorado. “This is an amazing success story for the Democratic Party,” he said, “and we should be celebrating it far more than we have.”

Title iconThe View From The U.K.

Conservatives in the U.K. are currently led by an extremely diverse slate of politicians, headlined by new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and are generating similar agita on the left over their positions on economic and social issues. There are also some messaging parallels between Margaret Thatcher-era conservatives and Republican candidates in America today. A famous 1983 campaign poster in the U.K. featured a Black man with the caption: “Labour says he’s Black. Tories say he’s British.”

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