When Ross Barrera, the Starr County Republican Party chair and Rio Grande City independent mayoral candidate, looked for a place to plant his tent during early voting at the county courthouse in town, he had two choices for neighbors.
Feuding school district factions had set up their campsites opposite of each other behind the parking lot. Barrera asked if he could pitch his canopy next to one of them.
“I was told that because I’m a Republican I could hurt their chances of getting elected,” Barrera said. He respected their choice and moved away with another independent candidate.
Barrera was there to greet like-minded people and conduct an informal poll of those who voted for President Donald Trump. He was the first person to catch a glimpse of support for the Republican president that no one, not even Barrera, saw coming.
“Holy Moly,” Barrera said when in just the second week he realized more people were casting red ballots. He predicted 5,000 votes would go to Trump.
In the end, the border county with a 96% Hispanic population gave the Republican presidential candidate 47% of their votes, 8,224, when it gave only 19% to the same candidate in 2016.
Starr County didn’t turn red, like neighboring Zapata County which had a shorter gap to close. About 33% of residents there voted for Trump in 2016. That increased by 19% this year to give him the county. Yet, no other county in the Rio Grande Valley saw such a boost in their numbers.
Most of Barrera’s tent visitors cited economic concerns for their support.
“It’s about the jobs, the jobs that they have, their kids, or a relative, or a husband who works in Midland-Odessa in the oil industry,” Barrera said.
President Trump incessantly brought the subject up during the last presidential debate.
“Would you close down the oil industry?” Trump asked opponent and former Vice President Joe Biden. “I have a transition from the old industry, yes,” Biden replied. “Oh, that’s a big statement,” Trump said.
This may have resonated with communities like Starr County where the main employers are the school districts, hospital and local government.
People in Starr County have an average income of $29,294 — the lowest in the Valley, according to the U.S. Census data — while about 33% are living in poverty.
Oil and gas was a compelling argument that stood out to Adrian Garcia, a father of two. He’s a lifelong resident with a job tied to the future of the industry — he’s a safety consultant working at construction sites of oil refineries.
“Not everybody has an education. So, they gotta depend on something else,” Garcia said of his community which relies on finding high-paying jobs in the oil fields. The closer, the better.
“When oil & gas was slow, you had to travel a lot. You had to travel to two, three different states to go to that job,” Garcia said. This was a concern for him as he decided between presidential candidates.
Even so, he voted for Biden.
Garcia voted for the candidate he felt would bridge the divide between the classes. He wants the country to be a better place for everyone, not just certain people in “higher and middle class.”
He seeks a future where everyone is valued equally. “You have immigrants coming from all over the place, it’s OK. That’s what makes America great,” Garcia said.
Barrera heard from some voters who didn’t speak English but who supported Trump.
Many believed Trump would repel Latino voters after he famously kick-started his election saying, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Yet, there’s broad appeal among Mexican-American immigrants and children of immigrants in Starr County.
Some older voters visited Barrera at his tent. They expressed concern over immigrants already in this country, the Dreamers, children who were brought into the country as children without authorization.
Reelecting Trump for some Mexican-American voters also has implications on international relationships.
“They would tell me that they voted for Trump, because they feel comfortable that López-Obrador, the Mexican president, has a good relationship with Donald Trump,” Barrera said. “They like the idea that there’s peace between the two presidents.”
Fourth-generation ally, Patricio Saenz, is helping expand the GOP alongside Barrera. He is a Democrat turned Republican.
“He didn’t care about being politically correct,” Saenz said, recalling what initially made him vote for Trump. “I like that about him, because sometimes they (politicians) listen to too many people telling them what to say and what to do, instead of what they really want to do.”
This year is the first time he votes “all red,” except in local races, Saenz said. Values stemming from his faith aligned him with the conservative party.
Barrera gave Saenz five boxes full of free Trump-Pence signs which he quickly distributed among “cops, Border Patrol, DPS state troopers, PD, sheriffs, and just people,” Saenz said.
The high-interest of law enforcement reflects their heavy presence in an area where border security served as another motivator for residents to vote red.
Seeing the signs around town left Saenz feeling motivated about the party’s future in his county.
Beaming with anticipation for what could come, Saenz posed a question to Allen West, the state’s Republican chair when he visited Rio Grande City last week: “What can we do to keep this going?”
West said they’d be trying to visit and provide training to the nascent majority.
That may still be a toss-up depending on the candidate.
While Starr County voters cast 47% of their ballots for Trump this year, they also cast 76% of their votes to then-U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in favor of Repulican incumbent Ted Cruz in 2018.
This year, Barrera suffered a personal defeat in his local bid for mayor. He lost to the Democratic incumbent by 740 votes. He’s still taking his party’s overall wins and moving forward. “I’m not upset, because the battle continues,” Barrera said.