© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

A Texas GOP Group Is Turning to Latinos to Help Flip Seats. It Swears It’s Not DEI.

Project Red TX is recruiting and promoting candidates in South and West Texas. As a result, it could change the makeup of the party.

Latino Voters AP-22070086169545
Project Red TX aims to get more South Texans to consider voting red. Eric Gay/AP

ZAPATA, Texas — As Texas Republicans try to turn the state’s remaining blue corners red, they’re running into a big problem: a lack of candidates.

The national party isn’t doing much to help. Neither is the state GOP. So a group called Project Red TX is attempting to fill the void, beginning in 2018 with a super PAC that had an admittedly low bar for which candidates it would support.

“We had criteria that we were looking for. Our first choice was a Hispanic female. Our second choice was a Hispanic male, looking at surnames,” said Cat Parks, who worked with Red TX during the 2022 cycle and is now president of the Coalition Por For Texas. “The third choice was anyone willing to put their name on the ballot.”

Wayne Hamilton, the Project Red TX founder, agreed.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” he said. “It takes very brave people to step out and run. And so, sometimes they’re not the best candidates in the world, but you want to get behind them, and you’ve got to get a foothold.”

“I jokingly said, my first criteria for a candidate is that they be breathing,” he added.

Since 2018, Project Red TX has recruited hundreds of candidates for small local races in South and West Texas — regions full of the type of Latino voters the GOP thinks it could win but often neglects. By finding and funding candidates for obscure races, even if there’s low voter turnout or public interest, the super PAC turned committee aims to jump-start a Republican base and slowly get more and more regular citizens of South Texas to consider voting red.

If it works, it could flip Texas’ most stubbornly blue region, knocking out some of the few remaining Democratic representatives from the delegation in Congress, and diversify a party still lagging support with voters of color. So far, Hamilton said Red TX candidates have won 63 elections and flipped the balance on nine county commissioner courts.

“I’m looking down the road. I want to see South Texas be as Republican as the rest of the state, and it’s getting there,” Hamilton said. “It takes a lot of hard work.”

His efforts may change the makeup of the GOP, although he and Parks insist that’s not the goal.

Both this cycle and in 2022, about half of Red TX candidates had Hispanic last names. Though Parks and Hamilton admit they want candidates who are active members of their communities — which along the border are predominantly Hispanic — they don’t see what they’re doing as prompting diversity.

“We don’t go in with the idea that, ‘Hey, we’re gonna recruit a Hispanic.’ We go in, we’re going to recruit people to run for office. If they’re Hispanic, great, which most of them are,” Hamilton said.

“I don’t believe in elevating someone, just because they are a woman or just because they are of a certain race or a certain ethnicity,” Parks said, despite her comments about their early recruiting criteria. “My belief is that you elevate someone because they are best qualified for the job. It’s not about meeting a quota.”

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Zapata, a mostly rural county with a population of roughly 14,000, is one of the new “battlegrounds” Republicans like to talk about. It voted blue in presidential elections going back to 1924, according to the Texas State Historical Association, but Trump won with just under 53% of the vote in 2020.

Still, Republican primaries often get very little interest. In the most recent primary elections, about 70 people voted on the Republican presidential ticket, while the Democrats had nearly 600.

“The ongoing joke in Democratic politics in South Texas is that you couldn’t get anybody excited to vote in the November elections because all the action was in the May elections,” said Manny Garcia, a Democratic political operative from South Texas who is skeptical of the Project Red TX efforts.

Wanda Cuellar-Garcia, who is running for sheriff in Zapata County as a Republican, said many people in the area aren’t sure how the Republican primaries work.

“People in the primaries always vote Democrat,” she said. “People in Zapata are conservative — they just don’t like the label.”

The idea behind Project Red TX is to find candidates like Cuellar-Garcia who can convince their neighbors to put those concerns to the side. She’s one of the candidates Hamilton is proud of in 2024, a former teacher who exudes the toughness it takes to corral children.

Hamilton said it can be easier to vote for someone you know personally. “It’s like, well, I know him, so yeah, he might be a Republican, but I can vote for him,” he said. “That’s when it starts becoming personal, and people are going, ‘Let’s set party aside to vote for somebody we know and trust.’”

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In an ideal world, Hamilton would like the Texas GOP to be doing the work of recruiting and promoting local candidates. He worked for former Gov. Rick Perry and Gov. Greg Abbott and remains the longest-serving executive director in the state party’s history.

He doesn’t like the direction of the party he’s devoted his life to.

“The state party has failed. End of story. I’m not angry about it; I just recognize what it is,” Hamilton said. “Quite frankly, I’m the only one fighting Democrats right now. Everybody else is fighting other Republicans. We can’t continually fight each other and expect to gain ground.”

Hamilton says Project Red TX was actually Abbott’s idea. Hamilton started it in 2018 as a super PAC, later changing it to a general-purpose committee so he could have more direct engagement with candidates.

“Our idea was we were going to help local guys that were signed up. The first thing we found out is, there were no local people signed up,” Hamilton said.

Project Red TX offered support to anyone who would sign up and found that the candidates they recruited desperately needed assistance.

“They needed everything,” Hamilton said. “They’re not sexy races, and there’s not a lot of money in them. The professionals don’t want to be a part of them.”

Engaging in small races isn’t glamorous work. The budgets are small, many of the candidates have never run for office before and the voter turnout is abysmal. Because most consultants and political operatives are focused on bigger races with more money, someone like him needed to be devoted to the cause.

“That’s what burns in my heart,” he said.

Over the years, the candidate pool for Project Red TX has grown and strengthened, Hamilton and Parks both said.

“The more candidates that we have in South Texas over time, people become more brave and are willing to step up and try,” Parks said. “We’ll see better and better candidates over time with each cycle.”

***

It’s not easy to run as a Republican in Democrat-dominated areas, multiple sources lamented. They said they’ve heard about people running primaries openly asking voters, “Are you sure you want to vote Republican?” and failing to put out GOP ballots.

Republicans “stayed in the shadows because Zapata is a small community,” said Jennifer Thatcher, the county Republican chair.

Maria Yvette Hernandez, who made a failed bid for Starr County judge in 2022 with the help of Red TX, said that speaking out against Democratic incumbents made her many enemies among her neighbors, even in a county that swung for Trump at a never-before-seen margin in 2020.

“I wasn’t conservative enough. I didn’t go to church enough. I cuss too much,” she said of what it felt like to be picked apart. “It’s a small town.”

She was sued by her Democratic opponent, who claimed she didn’t live in the district, in an attempt to keep her off the ballot. The case was quickly dismissed, and Red TX paid the legal fees, which allowed her to both fight it and stay on the ballot.

Hernandez ultimately lost by 17 votes. She still feels that running as a Republican is an important way to stand up to corruption among Democrats in the area, even if it made her something of a pariah.

“In hindsight, it caused me so much headache and so many problems,” she said of running. “I’m public enemy No. 1. I’m probably the most hated woman in the county.”

***

Project Red TX can’t work miracles. It’s still fighting a huge uphill battle where the majority of voters remain loyal to the Democratic Party. And, it doesn’t have unlimited funds.

Some of its candidates expressed frustration that they couldn’t get more done — more signs, more events.

“They’re going to need to pump in a lot more money,” said Cuellar-Garcia, who added that she was “grateful” for Red TX and couldn’t have run without its help.

And down-ballot races remain difficult for Republicans even in districts where Trump gained support in 2020. Garcia, the Democratic operative, said Trump seems to have sway with some rural Latino men but that it doesn’t mean the rest of the party is gaining traction.

“Donald Trump may have convinced some limited number of folks in rural counties to come out and vote for him, and some of those folks were Latino as well,” he said. “That did not carry down ballot for the rest of the Republican Party.”

Hamilton, however, believes strongly in his work with Red TX.

“No question about it. We’ve made great progress in South Texas,” he said.

He said Republicans need to invest as much in the area as they do in the rest of the state.

“The differences in an East Texan and a South Texan are indistinguishable outside of the accent,” he said.

He just wants the rest of his party to start paying attention too.


Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.