BROWNSVILLE, Texas – At a recent house party near the U.S.-Mexico border, the conversation with Democratic congressional candidate Rochelle Garza flowed from schools and taxes to immigration and efforts to convert an old railway line into a hiking trail.
One thing that didn't come up that Friday night over Corona beers and Domino's deep dish pizza: the effort by Democrats in Washington to use a massive federal spending package to beat back climate change.
“It’s not that the district is more moderate or moderately more conservative,” said Garza, 36, an immigration lawyer running for the House seat held by retiring centrist Democrat Filemon Vela. “Talking about how you’re going to meaningfully impact families, and make healthier families and healthier communities, I think that matters to people a lot more than some of these hot button issues.”
Democrats nationally are poised to go bigger than ever on the environment as part of the sweeping spending package they are trying to muscle through Congress. President Joe Biden has traveled the country sounding the alarm, blaming a warming planet for devastation from wildfire-ravaged California to hurricane-battered New York and warning of a “code red for humanity.”
But that focus could create political problems in energy rich areas. That includes South Texas, where many Latino voters turned against Democrats during last year’s presidential election and winning them back could prove critical to the party's hopes of retaining control of Congress during the 2022 midterms.
“They’re really making it easy on us," said Mayra Flores, a 35-year-old respiratory care practitioner and organizer for Donald Trump's 2020 presidential campaign. Flores is also running for Vela's seat and argues that Democrats are forcing Texans to choose between their energy sector jobs and curbing climate change.
Trump won 38% of the national Latino vote last year, 10 percentage points more from in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Some of his most dramatic gains came in heavily Hispanic areas that produce large amounts of oil and gas, including the district Garza and Flores want to represent.
It stretches from Brownsville, where there are proposals to build liquified natural gas terminals for export, more than 150 miles (240 kilometers) north to sparsely populated portions of the hydraulic fracturing-dependent Eagle Ford Shale.
Last year, Biden won Cameron County, which encompasses Brownsville and is about 90% Hispanic. But Trump’s margin of the vote increased there by 20 percentage points over 2016. Farther north, Trump flipped oil- and gas-producing, but still heavily Hispanic, Jim Wells and Kleberg counties.
“We are very dependent on oil and gas. That’s the reason you saw those numbers," said Flores, who was born in Mexico, came to the United State at age 6 and picked cotton every summer growing up after age 12. "That’s what people do. That’s where they work.”
Biden has signed an executive order halting new oil and gas leases in federal territory, though it was blocked by a court order this summer.
The spending package being debate in Congress seeks to push efforts to fight climate change into overdrive, however. It includes language on instituting high fees for polluters and tax incentives for clean energy and electric cars, while introducing new requirements that the nation’s power grid rely more heavily on renewable energy sources.
Rolando Lozano, a 62-year-old manager at an electric utility, was one of 200-plus people who recently filled a community center in the border town of Harlingen, west of Brownsville, to see Flores and other Latino Republican candidates. He said Democrats have moved so far to the left that “it looks anti-American.”
“It’s almost blatantly in the citizens’ face," Lozano said. "You can call it by any other name, but, fundamentally, it looks wrong.”
That feeling is far from universal among Hispanics, however. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in September found that 58% of Hispanics say they approve of Biden’s handling of climate change, while 38% disapprove.
Amanda Davé, a public health community campaign project manager in Brownsville, grew up in Houston, where her father worked in the oil and gas industry. But she believes protecting the environment is more important than appeasing energy interests.
“They try to put forward this message of ‘We’re bringing jobs. We’re bringing jobs. We’re bringing jobs.’ But a lot of people now see it as, they’re trying to exploit our natural resources,” said Davé, 35, who attended Garza’s house party. “I think there’s a consciousness that’s developing around how to protect what is here. What makes it special.”
Still, Gabriel Sanchez, executive director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for Social Policy, said threats of climate change traditionally poll as more pressing concerns among Latinos than the population at large — unless they are presented in terms of job losses. He said that in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and other energy producing states, “you’ve had tension for awhile.”
“Latinos are extremely conscious on climate change and support dang near every progressive policy there is to curb it,” Sanchez said. “But you juxtapose that with potential loss of jobs, that’s when you start to see a much more even attitude split.”
Potential clashes between energy jobs and environmental changes could also affect the adjacent House district, where Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez — who founded the House Oil and Gas Caucus and has urged the Biden administration not to move too far to the left on environmental issues — was reelected by less than 3 percentage points in 2020. Fast-growing Texas is gaining two new congressional seats after the 2020 census, and the Republican-controlled Legislature has proposed redistricting maps making Gonzalez's territory more red.
The same tension already helped decide a House seat that flipped Republican last year. In New Mexico, Republican Yvette Herrell defeated Democratic incumbent Xochitl Torres Small in a traditionally conservative district that is about 55% Hispanic and includes part of the oil-rich Permian Basin.
During last year's final presidential debate, Biden promised to “transition” the country away from fossil fuels. Torres Small responded that it was wrong to “demonize” the energy industry and decried the idea of banning fracking, but still lost.
Flores says Biden's debate comment is still reverberating across South Texas, too.
“I see this rise in the Republican Party,” said Flores, who campaigns under the slogan “Make America Godly Again.” “People are going to go vote to get their jobs back.”
Garza believes climate change-fighting efforts can create high-paying jobs, noting that the district has already added wind farms and could enjoy more opportunities in solar power.
“These are natural resources that we can easily take advantage of to create jobs,” said Garza. Amid the Trump administration's previous crackdown on immigration, she would approach groups of immigrants waiting on bridges between Mexico and the U.S. and provide presentations on asylum-seekers' rights.
“I think it’s about focusing on the opportunities that we have,” Garza said of national Democrats' environmental push. “Republicans like to preach doom.”
Daniel Canales, 33, who is between jobs but attended the Harlingen conservatives’ event, said he and others aren't opposed to new, more environmentally friendly jobs, but often struggle with Democrats' ideological message.
“The problem is the Democrats seem to be too urban-oriented. They’re too fixated on problems where they live," Canales said. "Out here, that doesn't mean much.”