ALICE — In a county that is 80% Hispanic and that he lost by 5 percentage points four years ago, Gov. Greg Abbott at a campaign stop Tuesday said that his twin messages of border security and robust law enforcement are the key to Republicans’ efforts to wrest South Texas from the grips of the Democrats.
“All you’ve got to do is look at what is the most important in the state, and that is the border,” Abbott told the USA TODAY Network in his first sit-down interview with a traditional print media outlet of the fall campaign. “And where is that most important? At the border.”
The governor, seeking his third four-year term against a well-known and well-funded Beto O’Rourke in the Nov. 8 election, was the featured attraction of the Jim Wells County Republican Party gathering inside a packed community center in Alice. The venue is a two-hour drive from the Rio Grande and 45 minutes from the Gulf Coast, and most in the audience cheered loudly when he talked about his sometimes controversial policies that send thousands of state troopers and National Guard soldiers to virtually all corners of South Texas.
“We’ve seen already the way that South Texas is changing, and it’s changing for several reasons,” Abbott said during his 25-minute speech. “One reason is because of the anger that so many people have because of Joe Biden’s open-border policies that will not be tolerated.”
Describing his four-month effort to send migrants who crossed into Texas without authorization and are now awaiting rulings on whether they can remain in the United States on buses to Washington, Chicago and New York City, Abbott drew loud cheers.
Before the buses began rolling, Abbott said, “most (people) in the United States did not know what was going on on the border. But, my God, as soon as they started showing up in New York City, the entire country knew what was going on on the U.S. border.”
At campaign stops of his own in Corpus Christi, in San Antonio and along the border over the weekend, O’Rourke called the bus policy “a stunt” to get attention in conservative media outlets that does not address the economic and political drivers of illegal immigration. Instead of buses filled with immigrants, O’Rourke at his rallies spoke of wooden crates and truck tractors used to smuggle immigrants into the United States, including the deadly incident in June where the bodies of about 50 people were found inside an abandoned tractor-trailer near Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Abbott has laid the blame for the surge in illegal immigration at Biden’s feet, saying the Democratic president should not have rolled back former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies.
The message resonated with Christina Araiza, who lives in Jim Wells County and whose grandfather was a 37-year veteran of the Corpus Christi Police Department.
“It might sound wrong to say it, but we cannot have all of this illegal immigration,” said Araiza, who was among the dozens of people who stood in line to pose for a photo with Abbott. “I support what the governor is trying to do.”
So did Bill Wright, who described himself as a former Democrat who no longer supports what he calls the party’s “communist, socialist agenda.”
“Let’s just say I’m a Republican now and leave it at that,” Wright said.
Ricardo “Ric” Rubio, a 21-year Air Force veteran who is running for treasurer of Jim Wells County, said he is campaigning to find more people like Wright to join those who are already Republicans in the county of about 40,000 people that in 2016 went to Democrat Hillary Clinton by 11 points and to Trump by 10 four years later.
“We go back and forth, but I’m going to knock on every door and talk to everybody who’ll talk to me,” Rubio said. “I think we can flip it for good.”
In the interview, Abbott said such a view is becoming increasingly apparent in the socially conservative but sometimes still Democrat-voting South Texas. Asked about South Texans, especially those of Hispanic origin, who are conservative on social issues such as abortion rights but still in need of government assistance such as an expanded Medicaid network, Abbott pivoted.
“Some of these people are first-generation Americans,” he said. “They didn’t come to this country for some leftist progressive agenda. They came for the freedom that is unique to the United States of America.”
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.
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