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Nation & World

How Texas' Longtime Democratic And Heavily Latino County Flipped Red

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As we dig more into why Americans voted the way they did, we head to Zapata, Texas. This heavily Latino county on the U.S.-Mexico border has been reliably Democratic for generations. But this year, it flipped and went for President Trump. As John Burnett reports, what happened there underscores the difficulties Democrats have had with locking down the Latino vote and turning Texas blue.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Zapata County is a hardscrabble land of ranchers, oil field workers and bass fishermen. It's 93% Hispanic and hasn't voted Republican in a presidential race since it went for Warren G. Harding a century ago - until 2020. Trump won Zapata and did better than expected up and down the winding Rio Grande, while Biden underperformed. He carried the South Texas border counties by only 11 points, compared to Hillary Clinton's 44-point spread in 2016.

Joe Gutierrez ranches and owns an oil field construction company in town. The Trump supporter inserts a plug of tobacco in his jaw and ruminates on the results.

JOE GUTIERREZ: I think people are trying to wake the country up as to, you know what? Democrats don't own us. You know, like, Joe Biden said, if you vote for Trump, you're not Black. You know, you cannot put people in that situation. We're not owned by nobody - no party.

BURNETT: Armed with polls and conventional wisdom, analysts counted this region solidly in Biden's bucket. After all, it has one of the worst coronavirus caseloads in the country, no thanks to White House bungling of the pandemic. Trump's border wall is very unpopular, and the president has been maligning immigrants from Day 1. And many residents down here trace their roots to Mexico. But as Tuesday showed, the border electorate defies easy categorization.

CARLOS SANCHEZ: The strong showing by Trump was a pleasant surprise.

BURNETT: Carlos Sanchez is a longtime journalist based in McAllen.

SANCHEZ: One, it demonstrates that the Hispanic community is not monolithic in its concerns and, two, it demonstrates that the Hispanic community cannot be taken for granted. Hispanics along the border are much more conservative than people think.

BURNETT: They tend to support the Border Patrol. They're deeply Catholic and generally pro-life, and they appreciate retail politics. Bill and Hillary Clinton were organizing South Texas for Democrats back in the 1970s. That helped her in 2016. A brief airport press conference in McAllen by vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris five days before the election did little to raise her ticket's fortunes. But if you had to pick one event that flipped Zapata, it was Biden's slip during the last debate when he said the country should transition away from petroleum. Texas has two prolific oil fields, the Eagle Ford Shale and the Permian Basin, that are major employers in West and South Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF OIL BUBBLING)

BURNETT: Chicharrones, fried pork rind, bubble in a pot inside Junior's Drive-In & Meat Market. Owner Robert Garza sells lots of rib-eyes to oil field workers.

ROBERT GARZA: You know, Zapata is a small county. You know, it's based off of, I would say, about 80% oil field. And there's nothing else here that can bring the economy back up. And yeah, I know Biden's not going to stop, you know, oil field 'cause you can't stop it. But he was against fracking and stuff. And we need oil field here in town.

BURNETT: Zapata County has been so Democratic there's not a single elected Republican. There's not even a local Republican Party. But 2020 might usher in a new era, says the Democratic county judge Joe Rathmell.

JOE RATHMELL: If you see the Texas map, Zapata County is a red dot in a sea of blue along the river. So - but other counties showed significant support for President Trump. So, yeah, I think people will notice.

BURNETT: A gleeful political adviser to GOP Governor Greg Abbott was quoted yesterday - we see real opportunity to grow the Republican brand in the Rio Grande Valley.

John Burnett, NPR News, Zapata, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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