DALLAS — As a Texan, Cristina Tzintzún-Ramirez understands that, to other Americans, it may seem that people from her state tend to think of themselves as the center of the universe.
“But when it comes to determining the political future of our entire country, Texas is the center,” said Tzintzún-Ramirez, the new president of NextGen America, a progressive youth-voting organization. “And we want to make sure that it is a young, diverse Texas that gets to decide the future of this country and of this state.”
Texas’ rapid population growth and diversifying demographics have drawn national attention to the Lone Star State’s politics. Because Texas is the second-most populous state in the country and has the second-largest U.S. Congressional delegation, what happens politically from Dallas to El Paso reverberates in national politics.
U.S. Census data from 2020 shows that Texas added some 4 million people in the last decade, 95% of whom were people of color.
Hispanics now make up 39.3% of Texas’ 29 million population, according to the 2020 census data. Non-Hispanic, white Texans make up 39.8%, down from 45% in 2010.
The strength of the Hispanic vote, particularly in the youth population, is one of the reasons NextGen chose South Texas as a launching pad for the organization’s $32-million program to register, inform and mobilize young Americans in eight key states.
“We look at regions of the state that have a high number of young people who are unregistered to vote, and the [Rio Grande] Valley is one of those epicenters in the state,” Tzintzún-Ramirez said.
NextGen also targets populations in which they see a lack of investment from political parties and political organizations to spend time reaching young voters to “actually hear their concerns,” she said.
“In the valley, there’s a tremendous amount of political power that young people have, and they need an organization willing to invest in them,” she said.
NextGen America is one of the nation’s largest youth-voting organizations, created in 2013 by Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager.
“When we started, no one could believe you could turn out young people to vote. They said it was a waste of money,” she said.
But in 2020, NextGen helped turn out one in nine young voters across the country, she said. That year, the United States saw a 10% surge in voter turnout for ages 18 to 29 from 2016. About 61% of those youth voters went for President Joe Biden.
“We are determined to keep that up to historical levels because we know that young people do really care,” she said. “They are not party-line cheerleaders for any political party, but they are motivated to win on the issues.”
Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, NextGen seeks to mobilize young voters between 18 and 25 in targeted areas of Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
In Texas, the statewide campaign will spend $16 million over two years to engage a goal of 2 million young voters.
South Texas, which includes the Rio Grande Valley, is home to 18% of the state’s Hispanic population. Across the state, Hispanics make up 30% of eligible voters. Historically, Hispanic Texans have voted for Democrats, for example, in 2016, 61% of the Hispanic vote went to Hillary Clinton. Statewide, former President Donald Trump won Texas 53% to Clinton’s 43%.
Democrats have banked on the growing number of Hispanic voters in the state to help flip Texas blue. But the 2020 election changed that hope into fear when there was an increase in South Texas Hispanic voters casting their ballot for former President Donald Trump in the presidential election compared to 2016.
Republicans have capitalized on those 2020 election results in South Texans. The Associated Republicans of Texas, a GOP political group, has said it is targeting six state House seats in South Texas currently held by Democrats. The Republicans’ push for the Hispanic South Texas vote gained momentum this spring when the former chairman of the Hidalgo County GOP, Javier Villalobos, was elected mayor of McAllen.
Although mayoral races in Texas are typically nonpartisan, it was the first time a registered Republican had won the seat in the Democratic stronghold in almost 100 years.
Meanwhile, Democrats accuse Texas Republican lawmakers of ignoring the state’s changing demographics when it drew up this year’s redistricting maps for the Texas State House, State Senate and its 38 congressional districts. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to sign the recently-passed redistricting bills into law, which will effectively solidify the GOP’s grip on the Texas Legislature for another decade.
Hispanic rights organizations have sued the state over the maps, alleging discrimination against Latino voters.
“When you talk to young people about those maps, and show them their numbers and potential powers, especially in the Latino community, people get disgusted pretty quickly and get motivated,” Tzintzún-Ramirez said. “But it requires organizations to do the work and reach out to that population.”
Redistricting wasn’t the only thing that angered Texas Democrats this year.
The Texas Legislature, where the Republicans have a majority in both chambers, made a sharp right turn this year, finishing what many consider to be the most conservative legislative session in the state in 30 years. Included among the laws passed are the most restrictive abortion law in the country, restrictive election laws, a ban on transgender youth from playing sports in public schools and permitless handgun carry.
Will these issues mobilize young voters in Texas, particularly Latino youth?
Tzintzún-Ramirez said the Latino community is “highly motivated, but you have to do the work of investing and talking to them and organizing, even if the community is outraged.”
Political pundits will claim Latinos are conservative like Republicans on issues like abortion access, she said. But what she sees after more than 20 years organizing and working in the Latino community is “a population that is poor and populous” and, more importantly to political organizers, often undecided about party, she said.
“The question really becomes who reaches them and who addresses their pain first,” she said. “That’s what I think it’s critical that we invest in the Valley, especially when you talk to younger Latinos.”
Latinos are the most likely of any ethnic group not just in Texas but in the country to make under $15 an hour, most likely to be uninsured, the least likely to go to college, Tzintzún-Ramirez said.
“Reaching that community to vote and to win on those issues is ultimately what matters, and that is why we are invested in the valley,” she said. “When we say the valley is ignored, the valley is also ignored by progressives or has been taken for granted and we are not going to do that.”
Tzintzún-Ramirez said she wanted to be clear that demographics are not destiny because “if they were, Texas would already be a different place than it is.”
Instead, demographics are simply the ingredient and the recipe for change, she said.