Are Democrats Taking Working-Class Immigrants for Granted?

Last week, Mayra Flores, a Republican candidate for Congress who was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States at the age of 6, flipped a congressional seat in a region of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas that had voted Democrat for 150 years. Flores’s victory came with the usual bluster from the G.O.P. and all the head-scratching from the national media that accompanies rightward voting swings in any nonwhite population. “G.O.P. wins big in Rio Grande Valley district. Does it portend shift of Hispanic voters?” the Fort Worth Star-Telegram asked in a headline. The conservative National Review called Flores’s victory “An Earthquake in South Texas” and said that her win “portends a major shift in the major American political landscape.”

Before I get into my own portending, let me offer up a bundle of caveats. This was an extremely low-turnout special election for a vacated congressional seat that will once again be up for grabs this November. The lines of the district will be significantly different in a few months — Flores won over an electorate that Joe Biden won by four points back in 2020. In November, Flores will be in the odd position of being a near-five-month incumbent running in a newly drawn district that, had it existed in 2020, Biden would have won by 15.5 points. This is presumably why Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (D.C.C.C.), dismissed Flores’s victory as a “rental” seat.

So we can and should throw some cold water on the grand claims about what this electoral result means for the future of the Republican Party. Flores’s campaign outraised that of her Democratic opponent Dan Sanchez by a 16-to-1 margin. It also spent more than $1 million on television ads. The imbalance in spending and resources was so extreme that after the results had come in, Sanchez’s campaign manager said in a statement, “The D.C.C.C., D.N.C. and other associated national committees have failed at their single purpose of existence: winning elections.”

I think it’s perfectly fair to take Robinson and the D.C.C.C. at their word when they say that they did not think it was worth expending too much effort on a seat that will almost certainly swing back to Democrats at the start of 2023. What seems far more interesting to me is why the G.O.P. put so much effort into securing Flores’s victory. Why did they care?

The simple answer is that since the 2020 general election showed surprising gains for the G.O.P. among Latino voters, especially in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley, Republicans have spent a considerable amount of time and money to turn what ultimately might have been an electoral blip into a national reality. They wanted Mayra Flores to win because it’s good for Republicans to show that they can win seats in districts like this one, with an 85 percent Latino population.

Chuck Rocha, a political consultant and a former senior adviser for Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, told me that even if Flores ultimately only serves for five months, her campaign is “a brilliant marketing strategy by the Republicans.” He believes Flores’s victory will result in a “fund-raising boom” that will allow G.O.P. operatives to go out and solicit funds for other races in places with significant Latino populations. Flores’s victory, then, will allow the G.O.P. to raise money and mobilize public opinion around the narrative that the Latino vote is swinging fast. Any close race with a large Latino population will now seem up for grabs.

But a lot of the excitement around Flores has to do with Flores herself. She is a 36-year-old immigrant and a respiratory-care therapist who works with elders. She is married to a Border Patrol agent. In her own words, she is “Pro-Life, Pro-Second Amendment, and Pro-Law Enforcement.” It’s hard to imagine a more perfect face for the future of the G.O.P. — a working Mexican American woman telling the public that everything the Democrats think and say about the people of South Texas is out of touch and wrong. In one television ad put out by the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, which opens with a photo of Joe Biden smiling at a podium, an unidentified voice speaking in a mild Hispanic accent says, “From up there, he’ll never get us down here. Forty years in office and not one visit to the border. He’s left us behind. That is why Mayra Flores is running for Congress. She’s one of us.”

“One of us” is the purest expression of identity politics, and while Republicans have long used this tactic to convince white voters to vote for white candidates, it’s rarely, if ever, been used by the party to endorse a Latina and underscore her connection to her working-class community. (The Flores campaign did not respond to a request for an interview.)

Much has been made over the past five years about how the Democratic Party can reach the working class. These conversations, which invoke coal miners and factory workers, are almost invariably concerned with the white working class. What’s almost never discussed is whether the Democrats are losing the nonwhite working class as well.

“The Democratic Party has walked away from blue-collar messaging, which is really aligned with the new immigrant community, mainly Latinos, and actually in some states A.A.P.I., because they’re working those jobs,” Rocha said.

This has opened the door for politicians like Flores to reimagine what the politics of her community should be. This has a special power within immigrant groups — even those who have been in America for a few generations — because their political allegiances aren’t calcified. According to a January Gallup poll, 52 percent of Latinos identify as independent, which is 10 percent higher than the proportion of independents among the American population as a whole. While this is a crude way to measure voter flexibility, it’s also true that over the past 40 years, both major immigrant groups in America — Latinos and Asian Americans — have swung between the two parties at a rate that far outpaced Black and white Americans.

So who does Flores imagine is “us”? Her messaging mostly centered around economic hardship, family and opportunity. In a flier titled “Mayra Flores Will Restore the American Dream,” Flores promises to “stop out-of-control spending to end inflation,” “secure the border” and “expand, not limit, access to health care.” In another, she promises to “get the economy back on track” and “stop inflation in its tracks, and keep more money in your pocket.” And in her acceptance speech last week, Flores said, “The policies that are being placed right now are hurting us. We cannot accept the increase of gas, of food, of medication, we cannot accept that. And we have to state the fact that under President Trump, we did not have this mess in this country.” Her messaging is clear: “Us” refers to the struggling, working-class families who grew up with socially conservative values. “Them” is everyone else.

Flores, then, can act almost as a proof of concept for future Republican candidates. Her invocation of Trump might have caught the attention of headline writers, but her campaign only occasionally mentioned the former president and stayed on message about economic factors, family and what she said were the real values of the people of South Texas: border security, religion, affordable health care, well-funded police and the Second Amendment.

It’s time for Democrats to ask a very simple question: What, exactly, does their party offer working-class immigrants? Note that here I am not talking about the broad, humanitarian ideal of immigration, wherein a government puts aside its nativist tendencies and welcomes people from around the world. I am talking about the millions of first- and second-generation immigrants who still identify strongly with their country of origin but who have mostly come to the United States seeking economic opportunity. They are largely apolitical or independent voters. They get their news from non-English sources far from the reach of things like this newsletter. Like everyone else in America, they tend to vote based on which party better reflects their self-interest.

This is a question I’ve been turning over in my head for the past five or so years, since I noticed that many of the communities I was reporting on — mostly Asian American — did not seem all that concerned with the threat of Donald Trump. This wasn’t a surprise to me. I was not born in this country, grew up in an immigrant household and have spent much of my career reporting on immigrant communities. For many first- and second-generation immigrant families, racism and white supremacy are secondary political concerns. (A Pew poll in 2020 showed that “racial and ethnic inequality” was fourth on the list of Hispanic voter priorities. The economy and health care were at the top of the list. Immigration, for what it’s worth, was eighth, below Supreme Court appointments and climate change.)

Most immigrant families, mine included, assume that racism will be a part of their lives. But because they still believe in American economic opportunity, economic and health care issues will always be more of a political priority than the squishier and sometimes more abstract competition between which party they think will be more racist than the other. This is especially true of working-class immigrants, many of whom come from the socially conservative, religious backgrounds that Flores defines as “us.”

If Flores’s low-turnout, likely temporary victory “portends” anything, it’s that immigrant identity politics rooted in economic talk can work for the right just as well as it has worked in the past for the left. What many in these communities want is a voice that will talk about economic hardships while also invoking a type of identity politics that will allow them to feel like they are part of a community.

For the past two years I have been writing about how the Democratic Party has taken immigrant votes for granted with the warning that if this continues, a new politics rooted in “us” will arise, paired with the grievance that liberals do not actually care about “our” issues. This is precisely what Flores did. In one of her many interviews after her victory, she said Democrats had taken South Texas “for granted” and that “they feel entitled to our vote.”

“I’m their worst nightmare,” Flores said of the Democrats in an interview with Newsmax. “They claim to be for immigrants. I’m an immigrant. They claim to be for women. I’m a woman. They claim to be for people of color. I’m someone of color. Yet I don’t feel the love.”

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

Related Articles

Back to top button