With little more than two weeks left before Election Day, the country is in the grip of one of the most contentious presidential elections in modern history.
Tension surrounding the presidential election is thicker than Rio Grande Valley humidity, and the Valley is not immune to heated bursts of political passion. Enter a highly combative race for the presidency between the nation’s commander in chief, Donald Trump, and the Democratic opponent and former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as the president’s own infection and recovery from COVID-19, and these become the makings of a historical moment in America’s political spectrum.
Such is the case in the Valley, where those moments are accompanied locally by shows of support for both candidates, perhaps more notably for Trump considering the region’s long history of voting blue.
Read, for instance, most social media comment sections of any local media outlet, and one would think the president has the region seeing red.
But is that really the case?
Hidalgo County Republican Party Chairwoman Adrienne Peña-Garza believes it’s not happening.
“If you look at my social media or if you’ve listened to anything in my speeches, I never say, ‘Let’s flip Hidalgo County red,’” Peña-Garza said Friday. “I never say that because realistically, that’s impossible.”
It’s the ugly side of politics that concerns Peña-Garza, saying she observed a small group of Biden supporters at the Edinburg Annex Building on Wednesday yelling what she said were racially insensitive insults at a Trump supporter who’d recently gained citizenship in the United States.
Ask most any Democrat at polling sites and they’ll share similar experiences about the other side. Such is the case come election time, when support can so easily flare up into fury.
“I think that we can be better as human beings to try to understand each other,” Peña-Garza said. “I have seen ugliness. Being that I’m the Republican chair, and I do spend a lot of time with our base, I have compassion for our team. I encourage people to have some more civility and respect because this woman was in tears. She didn’t deserve that. She’s never been involved in politics. She’s very proud to be American.”
Wednesday’s incident is a microcosm of the emotions felt by Americans on both sides of the aisle. Emotions that have empowered supporters to come out in support of their respective candidates like never before, particularly in the Valley which has an extensive history of strongly favoring Democrats.
Support for both presidential candidates has seemingly ushered in a fandom in the form of signs, flags, billboards and vehicular parades, specifically the Trump Train — a procession of motorists showing support for the president in Hidalgo and Cameron counties — that grew in participation by the hundreds from week to week since late summer.
“I can’t speak for all of South Texas, but what I’ve seen in Hidalgo County is a lot more Hispanics are getting involved with the party, and I’m assuming that’s because they feel more welcomed,” Peña-Garza said. “We do see a lot of diversity in the party, which is also increasing more people to join because diversity is a great thing.”
Carlos Cascos, who himself was at one point a Democrat, was elected as Cameron County judge in 2006 after switching to the Republican Party. He left the judgeship after being appointed in 2015 by Gov. Greg Abbott to serve as the Texas Secretary of State, and served in that role until 2017.
He said that the ubiquitousness of Trump support in the Valley is not necessarily a sign of growing sentiment for the president, but more an act of empowerment among those who did not feel comfortable sharing conservative beliefs in a largely Democratic area.
“There’s a lot of ways one can take it. I think we can see a lot more movement than we have in the past,” Cascos said. “I don’t know if it’s because of the animation of Trump and how he gets people motivated. I think these folks who are coming out have always had a conservative vein in their body. They just believe now is an appropriate time to come out and display it.
“I just hope that this conservative movement, Trump movement — whatever it is — continues for future elections. Time will tell if it’s just a temporary red wave that is coming out because of Trump and will diminish later on. We’ll just wait and see.”
For consideration, the March 2016 Republican primary election in Hidalgo County saw 18,748 ballots cast, in which of the 21 races on the ballot voters had 13 candidates to choose from for the GOP presidential nominee. In 2018, just 7,286 ballots were cast in the Republican primary in which there were 38 races on that ballot, including senatorial and gubernatorial nominees; and 12,526 in the 2020 primary when there were 35 races.
The 2016 General Election saw a grand total of 176,160 ballots cast in Hidalgo County, of which 28,705 were Republican straight party votes and 87,611 were Democratic straight party votes. Trump received a total of 48,642 votes, and his opponent, then Democratic nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received a total of 118,809 votes.
With the elimination of straight ticket ballots in this year’s general election, Republican and Democratic votes are more difficult to track. As of Friday evening, a total of 73,101 votes had been cast in Hidalgo County.
One particular factor Cascos feels has been a long-time coming, and which may help Republicans in this year’s election, is that discontinuation of straight ticket voting. Cascos believes it has, in the past, hindered opportunities for Republican candidates seeking public office, himself included.
“That straight ticket vote is what killed everybody. I lost by a little over 14,000 votes,” Cascos said about his 2018 race against Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. “Guess what the straight ticket vote was — 14,000 votes. Had it not been for that, I think it would’ve been a whole different race. If that would not have been a ballot I think a lot of Republicans would not have lost, quite possibly including myself. You play the cards you’re dealt. What could you do?”
With growing momentum, could the Valley see a shift in the future? Texas Democratic Party Chair and former Cameron County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa, who was unseated by Cascos in 2006, agrees in part with Peña-Garza’s observations.
“Zero chance of that,” Hinojosa said of turning the Valley red. “The vote for Joe Biden in the Rio Grande Valley will be over 70%, probably closer to 80%. We can see with respect to the Trumpers, they’re just very vocal. They go out there because they love this man for whatever reason. They’ll go out there with their American flags and they’ll run around all over the Valley with their little car caravans. That’s just because they’re more vocal.
“Most working class families in the Rio Grande Valley, they’re not making a lot of noise. The only noise they’re going to make is when they go to the ballot box.”