U.S. Republicans celebrated a surprising victory earlier this month as their candidate won the mayoral race in McAllen, Texas—a historically Democratic city of 143,000 on the Mexican border with a population that’s 85 percent Hispanic or Latino. The election was technically nonpartisan, but Mayor-elect Javier Villalobos—a former chairman of his county’s Republican Party—quickly attracted national attention from party leaders and right-wing media, with Fox News host Sean Hannity declaring that Villalobos “made history” and The Wall Street Journal publishing the headline “More Latinos Bid ’Adios’ to Democrats.” The Texas result also stoked Republican hopes of building on a silver lining of their loss in last year’s race for the White House: President Joe Biden won the Latino vote overwhelmingly when he defeated former President Donald Trump, but Trump improved on his standing with Latinos from 2016 by about nine percentage points—despite his harsh anti-immigration stance and past xenophobic rhetoric. Why did Latinos shift toward Republicans—and is that trend continuing?

Gabriel Sanchez, who’s a political science professor at the University of New Mexico and a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, thinks the shift in 2020 may have been a result of unique pandemic politics—dynamics that won’t be replicated in future elections. Latinos are disproportionately small-business owners, Sanchez says, many of whom appreciated Trump’s emphasis on reopening the economy—an emphasis that incidentally meant the former president was less focused on immigration and “racializing” Latinos than he had been in 2016. Democrats are also concerned that they may have underinvested in courting these voters in key areas, treating them as a monolithic group. Sanchez sees opportunity for Democrats to capitalize on economic issues and immigration with these voters now—especially given Biden’s popularity—but he also sees reasons for Republicans to hope they can win back a constituency that was once much more favorable to them.

Graham Vyse: What do you think explains the shift toward Trump in 2020?

Gabriel Sanchez: You heard a lot of speculation that it was machismo—Latino men buying into Trump’s rhetoric about women, for example—but if you look at the American Election Eve survey [from the polling firm Latino Decisions], the most significant drop in Democratic support actually came from Latinas. They went from 86 percent Democratic support in 2016, which is off the charts, all the way down to 73 percent—a 13-percent difference. Remember, 2016 provided the opportunity to vote for the first female presidential nominee ever in the U.S.

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