How the Fight for Abortion Rights Changed South Texas Politics

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LAREDO, Texas — Like the majority of her neighbors in Laredo’s heavily Latino community, Angelica Garza has voted for Democrats for most of her adult life. Her longtime MP, Henry Cuellar, with his moderate views and opposition to abortion, made him an easy choice, she said.

But as promising Democratic candidates in her part of South Texas have increasingly leaned toward liberalism, Ms. Garza, a devout Catholic, voted for Donald Trump in 2016, largely because of his anti-abortion views.

In choosing Mr. Trump that year and again in 2020, Ms. Garza joined a parade of Latino voters who are changing the political fabric of South Texas. In the Laredo area, where approximately 9 out of 10 inhabitants are Catholicmany registered voters appear to be motivated largely by the issue of abortion alone.

“I am ready to vote for any candidate who supports life,” said Ms Garza, 75. “That’s the most important question for me, even if it means not voting for a Democrat.”

With just over a week to go before a crucial primary election, Ms. Garza is ready to turn away from Democrats. Pointing to a wall covered in folk angel figurines at the art store she owns in Laredo, she explained why: “They’re babies, angels, and I don’t think anyone has the right to end to his life. We must sustain life.

Voters like Ms. Garza worry Democratic leaders, whose once tight grip and influence on the Texas-Mexico border region has loosened in recent election cycles. The Republicans won major victories in southern Texas, toppling Zapata County, south of Laredo on the bank of the Rio Grande, and a state district in San Antonio. They also made gains in the Rio Grande Valley, where border counties provided so many votes for Mr. Trump in 2020 that they helped negate the impact of white voters in urban and suburban areas of the country. State who voted for Joe Biden.

Much is at stake in Laredo, the most populous city in the majority Latino 28th congressional district, which stretches from the eastern tip of San Antonio and includes a western portion of the Rio Grande Valley. Since the district was drawn nearly three decades ago, the seat has been held by Democrats. Mr. Cuellar has represented the district since 2005. His moderate and sometimes conservative views — he was the only Democrat in Congress to vote against a U.S. House bill that would have reversed the state’s near-total ban on abortion law which went into effect last September – has often endeared it to social conservatives and Republicans.

But he now finds himself locked in a close contest against a much more liberal candidate supported by the progressive wing of the party which includes Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Mr Cuellar, whose home was raided last month by the FBI in an investigation neither he nor the government has disclosed, beat his opponent, Jessica Cisneros, by four percentage points in 2020.

Should he lose the primary on March 1 to Ms. Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration lawyer who supports abortion rights, the path to overthrowing the House of Representatives could very well be through the south. of Texas, as Republicans have sworn an all-in campaign centered on religious and other conservative values.

Across Laredo, a city home to one of North America’s busiest land entry points and where Catholic Masses are integrated into daily life, anti-abortion messaging abounds. The polarizing issue appears to be firmly settled in this part of the state, as evidenced by sermons in all 34 Catholic parishes, graphic billboards at intersections, and the fact that the area’s last abortion clinic closed there. is nearly 20 years old.

“My priest doesn’t tell people how to vote, but he reminds us to vote with our Catholic conscience,” said Betty Flores, the city’s mayor from 1998 to 2006. Mrs Flores, a longtime friend of the Bush family, also identifies as a Democrat — an “old blue dog” Democrat, she said, referring to her moderate views. While she sees herself in the anti-abortion column, she said she doesn’t believe in adopting policies that govern women’s bodies.

Even Sylvia Bruni, the leader of the Webb County Democratic Party, which includes Laredo, said she has made peace with the duality of her anti-abortion views and the broader Democratic mandate that seeks to expand health care. to women, including the termination of pregnancies.

“I speak for myself,” said Ms. Bruni, a Catholic, “but as anti-abortion as I am personally, I don’t think I have the right to tell others what to do.”

Mr Cuellar has retained the seat since 2005 largely because of his moderate views. By voting last September against women’s health protection lawthe measure that sought to protect the right to abortion, he cited his Catholic upbringing.

The measure, which was adopted, seems condemned in the Senate. But Mr Cuellar’s vote was a symbolic nod to his socially conservative constituency, whose members walk past banners every day with images of fetuses that read “God says ‘All lives matter'” or a Dejected Virgin Mary praying for those considering abortions. .

With Texas law banning most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, and with the Supreme Court possibly set to uphold a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, many voters in southern Texas will do whatever it takes to preserve those gains, said Eddie Lucio Jr., a state senator often compared to Mr. Cuellar because of his moderate views.

“There is no Catholic for the right to abortion,” Mr. Lucio said. “There is a silent majority that says nothing. But when they go to vote, they will vote for the anti-abortion candidate.

Outside of Laredo, Texans remain deeply divided on the issue. According to a recent survey by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, about 46% of the 1,200 respondents believe that current abortion laws should either be stricter or stay as they are; 43% said they should be less strict.

On a recent afternoon at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Laredo, Jose Brizuela, 73, a retired businessman, said he had always voted for Democrats, including Mr. Cuellar, motivated by their program to help the poor. But if the next Democratic candidate backs abortion rights, he said, “I’m ready to vote Republican.”

With Mr. Cuellar’s seat under threat, Republicans are poised for their first real challenge in the district in decades. If news of the investigation involving Mr Cuellar were to keep many of his supporters at home, Republican leaders say Ms Cisneros’ progressive values, particularly around abortion, may be a bridge too far for the broader faith-based general electorate. In the primary, seven Republicans are vying for the nomination.

“There was a mentality that said, ‘Oh, we only vote this way,'” said Webb County Republican Party Chairman Luis De La Garza. “We’re showing them that it’s okay to vote for something they actually believe in. I think voters are starting to see that we have the same religious and family values.”

And indeed, the Republicans have made gains in the 28th arrondissement. In November 2020, the GOP garnered 39% of the vote, up from 31% in 2016.

Also in 2020, the Democratic presidential ticket received 487 fewer votes than four years earlier. The Republican presidential ticket, on the other hand, received nearly 13,000 more votes in 2020 than in 2016, according to data compiled by the Democratic Party.

Last November, Republicans unseated a once solidly Democratic district in San Antonio by 286 ballots in a special runoff. Voters also turned out in droves for Republicans in Hidalgo and Zapata counties, two traditionally Democratic strongholds along the Rio Grande. In 2020, Joe Biden won Hidalgo County, McAllen’s home, by 17 percentage points, a narrower victory compared to Hillary Clinton’s 40-point victory four years earlier. And in neighboring Zapata County, Mr. Trump won by five points.

The state, while increasingly diverse and progressive, has not translated into more votes for Democrats. In Webb County, only half of registered voters voted in 2020.

Still, progressive Democrats are working overtime to energize young voters for the first time – both to defeat Mr. Cuellar in the primary and the Republican nominee in November. During a recent visit to San Antonio to campaign for Ms. Cisneros, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive congresswoman from New York, called the 28th District a “battleground.”

In recent months, Democrats have stepped up outreach efforts, Bruni said, and added more than 2,300 voters.

“We were solidly Democrats, but we are more conservative than the traditional liberal enclaves,” said Sergio Mora, former chairman of the Democratic Party. “We are socially more conservative. We could lose the seat.

Sarah Smith, 40, is one of the voters who sees the district turning red on the sole basis of the abortion issue. Ms Smith, who favors smaller government – ​​she calls herself a 19th-century liberal – and has Mexican and British ancestry, said she supports Democratic priorities like prison reform, but added that maintaining the prohibiting abortion was his priority.

“Maybe it’s time for this area to go Republican,” she said. “Everything necessary to preserve life.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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