This special election tests Republicans' efforts to woo Latino voters

SAN ANTONIO – As far back as María Rodríguez can remember, the south side of San Antonio has almost always elected Democrats, Hispanics ...

SAN ANTONIO – As far back as María Rodríguez can remember, the south side of San Antonio has almost always elected Democrats, Hispanics like her who have focused on improving public education and access to health care.

But last week, as she walked out of an early poll where she had voted in a hotly contested run-off for an open State House seat, Ms Rodríguez, 55, wondered if her once solidly Democratic district could switch.

This time around, there was a good chance the Republican candidate, a Latino who briefly held the seat in 2016 and received the most votes in last month’s special five-a-side election, could come out on top and represent Ms Rodríguez and around. 160,000 of them. mostly Latino neighbors.

“I’m nervous,” she said.

The contest for the vacant seat in the 118th District has exposed the vulnerabilities of a traditionally Democratic stronghold, as Republicans go out of their way to gain traction with Latino voters in South Texas. He also tested the progress of a Republican party that openly courted those voters, who cited a range of grievances, ranging from rising crime and failing infrastructure to the feeling of abandonment by Democrats.

None of the three Democrats and two Republicans who ran in the special election won a majority of the vote, leaving voters with one candidate from each party, both of whom were Latinos growing up in the district. Early voting began last week and election day is November 2.

Republican candidate John Lujan, a retired 59-year-old firefighter and former sheriff’s deputy who now owns an IT company, campaigned on a platform for public safety and job creation. His opponent, Frank Ramirez, a 27-year-old former legislative adviser, focused on investments in public education, aging infrastructure and property tax breaks.

In the special election, held to replace a Democrat who resigned this year to take up a college teaching post, Mr Lujan garnered nearly 42% of the vote and Mr Ramirez around 20%. The other two Democrats together accounted for 30% of the 7,075 votes cast. But in the end, a total of 47 more ballots were cast for Republicans – enough to give the GOP a slim advantage.

“It really is anybody’s race,” said Jon Taylor, professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has been following the special elections closely.

At the three early voting sites across the district, traffic over the past few days has been steady but slow.

Martin Flores, 57, a longtime Republican who voted for Mr. Lujan, said it was time for a Republican to represent a growing conservative gang in Texas. The problems that motivate him, he said, are rising taxes and a deadly spike in crime that plagued the big cities. (There were homicides in San Antonio Last year, but overall crime was not.)

“I am confident that every decision he makes,” Mr. Flores said of Mr. Lujan, “he is going to listen to people.”

Diana Espinoza, who is in her 40s and works in human resources, said she recently had a short and pleasant conversation with Mr Lujan, but was not convinced to vote for him. As the mother of a sixth grader, she said she was most concerned in this competition with improving access to technology in local schools. She fears that a Republican has different priorities. She also acknowledges that Democrats have been largely blocked on the State Capitol by a Republican majority.

A victory for Mr Ramirez, she said, could help usher in a long-promised blue wave era in an increasingly ethnically diverse state.

“I want the Democrat to win,” Ms. Espinoza said. “But if Lujan wins, then I want him to do a good job for us. It doesn’t matter which party you are from.

With this seat essential to the Republican Party’s efforts to make inroads in South Texas, Mr. Lujan has the financial backing of the state’s Republican establishment, including Gov. Greg Abbott and a senior lawmaker. By the end of October, Lujan had raised more than $ 500,000 in direct and in-kind donations, according to documents filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

By contrast, as of October 23, Mr Ramirez had raised about $ 220,000 in direct and in-kind contributions, including $ 70,000 from the Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit that supports diversity in elections, and Democratic lawmakers. , according to his documents. Most of his donations came in the past month, and he received a larger share from individual donors than Mr. Lujan.

The district, which includes communities along the fast-growing corridors of Freeways 35, 37 and part of Loop 410, a freeway that surrounds the city, is about 70 percent Hispanic. It is made up of working-class families, with around a quarter of households earning between $ 25,000 and $ 50,000 per year and nearly 15% of adults with a bachelor’s degree or above, according to a state district profile.

Historically, constituents have leaned to the left. In the Election 2020, 56% voted for President Biden, while 42% supported Donald J. Trump. (Mr Biden garnered 58% of the vote in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio.)

But today Democrats are increasingly alarmed by what appears to be waning support among Latino voters, once a reliable constituency. In recent polls, Mr. Biden’s general opinion the approval rate was between 40 and 40 years old, and about 50 percent among Latino voters.

In South Texas, where there have been signs the Republican Party is making headway with the Latino population, conservative agents have said they want to see national poll numbers translated into votes for their candidates. And San Antonio – a predominantly Hispanic city – has long been seen as the gateway to the rest of the region.

Indeed, further south in the Rio Grande Valley, along the state’s border with Mexico, Republicans have made some headway. Although Mr. Biden won Hidalgo County, which includes McAllen, by 17 percentage points last year it was a considerably tighter competition than Hillary Clinton’s 40 point victory. In neighboring Zapata County, Mr. Trump won by five points.

The decline of progressives in predominantly Latin American enclaves has prompted the GOP to expand its base beyond a predominantly white political coalition, prompting them to challenge Democrats in their territory. The Republican National Committee now operates offices in San Antonio, McAllen and Laredo, another border town, to woo more Latino voters.

“Republicans are doing a much better job of educating Latinos,” said Sharon Navarro, professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Outside an early voting site last week, Mr Lujan said he enjoyed the task and was ready to take it on. He had come here before, having won a special election for the same seat in January 2016, only to lose it in a general election later in the year. “The trick is to hold it back,” he said.

Mr Lujan, the son of a minister and head of a public school, said he focused on issues that matter to San Antonio residents, such as border security and promoting small businesses. He often touts the computer consulting company he founded with a handful of employees in 1999. Today, it employs more than 400, he said. As the father of three adopted sons, he also focused on strengthening the state’s foster care system.

Districtwide, Mr Ramirez said the challenge he faced made him keep knocking on doors. As many residents commented on how young he looked, he reminded them that he had immersed himself in government work since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2016. He had served as legislative director and chief of staff in District 118 and, most recently, as director of zoning and planning for a San Antonio city councilor, a position he left in August to run for office.

On Monday afternoon, 21-year-old Emmanuel Alvarez took his 65-year-old mother, Maria Jasso, a retired factory worker, to a polling station to collect campaign leaflets on each candidate.

They had not made up their minds, although Ms Jasso, who said improving access to health care and repairing cracked roads in much of her neighborhood was a priority, leaned towards Mr. Ramirez. His son, meanwhile, said it could depend on the personality. So far, he’s okay with both contenders and their platforms.

“Both have great ideas,” he said. “I am neither liberal nor conservative. I fall in the middle. The question, he said, was whether to vote for the least experienced politician or for someone who had served once before but who could align with the state’s Republican majority. .

“I don’t know yet,” Mr. Alvarez said. “Let’s see who will convince me before Tuesday.

J. David Goodman contributed to Houston reporting. Kitty bennett contributed research.

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Newsrust - US Top News: This special election tests Republicans' efforts to woo Latino voters
This special election tests Republicans' efforts to woo Latino voters
Newsrust - US Top News
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