In blue Presidio County, Republicans — aided by political action committee — aim to win in November

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara has become one of over 100 local Republican candidates bolstered by the PAC, which has the stated mission of getting Republicans elected to local office in “targeted counties”

Campaign signs for Presidio County Republican candidates line an empty lot on Hwy 90 in Marfa. These signs and many others around Marfa were paid for by Project Red TX, a PAC with a mission of putting Republican candidates in office. Photo by Maisie Crow

PRESIDIO COUNTY — When Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara first decided to run for reelection as a Republican in 2022, she did not believe she had a chance at winning come November. She was a lifelong Democrat — most recently, she had been reelected to her current office as a Democrat in 2018. This was in keeping with the local political climate. In reliably blue Presidio County, common knowledge dictated, you must have a “D” next to your name if you want to win. 

But as she came up against the filing deadline in December of last year, she found herself beset by a crisis of conscience — she no longer felt the Democratic Party reflected her values. But to run as a Republican, she believed, would be to accept defeat.

“If I run as a Republican, I know I won’t win,” she recalls thinking. “I told myself: you’re not going to win.”

Still, on the last possible day to file as a candidate, within minutes of the deadline, she opted to file with the Republican Party. A lot has changed since then. Nearly one year later, just shy of a month from Election Day, campaign signs bearing her name are scattered throughout the Democratic stronghold of Marfa — many of them containing the legally-required disclosure, in minute lettering, that they are paid for by a political action committee called Project Red Texas.

Guevara has become one of over 100 local Republican candidates bolstered by the PAC, which has the stated mission of getting Republicans elected to local office in “targeted counties.” The judge learned about the group when they came to Presidio County in July, she said — she was parked near the Presidio County Courthouse when a truck loaded with campaign signs for another candidate — she didn’t recall who — pulled up nearby. She cracked a joke that turned out to be fortuitous. 

“I just said to the guy, ‘Oh, I guess you’re here to deliver my signs,’” she said. “He said, ‘I am looking for Cinderela Guevara,’ and I said, ‘Hey, that’s me!’ He said, ‘I was told to contact you.’ He asked me if I was running as a Republican and he said, ‘We can get you some signs.’”

That was a Thursday, she recalled — by Tuesday, she learned, the signs were ready, and they were delivered to her a week and a half later. They gave her 125 signs altogether — 100 small lawn signs, and 25 large ones. All but roughly 30 of the small signs now adorn the homes and businesses of supporters in town, she said — folks kept calling her and asking for them. If she ends up needing more, Project Red Texas has offered to supply them, she said. (Guevara said she will report the signs as campaign contributions, their monetary value adding up to over $1,000).

The judge has become symbolic of a phenomenon the state Republican Party is touting this election season — longtime Democrats defecting from their party, believing the one-time opposition is more aligned with their true values. In July, Guevara was showcased on Governor Greg Abbott’s Twitter account in this capacity, with the governor calling her “a life long Democrat until the Democratic Party walked away from her.”

In a video accompanying the tweet, Guevara — seated next to Abbott at a campaign event for the governor in Fort Stockton — explains that she had run as a Democrat since 1992, and this is her first year running as a Republican. “I’m very happy with Governor Abbott here, for all he has done for Texas and continues to do for Texas, especially with our border crisis,” she beams. (Weeks earlier, Guevara had issued a controversial “declaration of local disaster” which declared Presidio County under “invasion” by migrants and drug trafficking, hoping to secure reimbursements for border security from the state).

Guevara, who is slated to face off against Democrat Jose Portillo in November, isn’t the only Republican candidate running in Presidio County. Garey Willbanks is running as a Republican for county commissioner precinct 4 against Democrat David Beebe. Republican David Chavez is running for county treasurer against incumbent Frances Garcia. 

Project Red Texas has paid for campaign signs for both Willbanks and Chavez. Neither candidate responded to interview requests from The Big Bend Sentinel.

Headed by political operative Wayne Hamilton, Project Red Texas was launched in 2017 with the singular mission of flipping counties like Presidio — “currently held Democrat counties” where “we think their values more traditionally should align with what the Republican Party stands for,” explained Cat Parks, the former vice chair of the Texas Republican Party who now works in candidate recruitment for Project Red Texas on a volunteer basis. The PAC provides campaign and marketing materials like signs to candidates, but also serves as a resource for advice to candidates as they navigate their campaigns. (The group also offers to pay candidates’ filing fees, but did not pay the fees for any Presidio County candidates, having made contact after the filing deadline, per Presidio County GOP Chair Dan Dunlap).

That first election cycle, they started with 54 candidates and saw some results, said Parks — this time around, their reach has more than doubled. 

“With that effort, [we] were successful in flipping four county commissioner courts from Democrat to Republican,” she said. “And this cycle, we are supporting 135 candidates in 24 counties. So we’ve grown the effort and we really feel that there’s a clear path forward here.”

Parks noted the “red shift,” typified by Guevara, of former Democrats switching to the Republican Party. It’s a trend that has been observed in Sanderson, where the formerly Democratic county judge, county clerk and treasurer all opted to run as Republicans this year. It is a shift Parks believes is driven by an adherence to core values that the Republican Party claims to represent: “Economic freedom, certainly inflation right now, law and order, backing of police, strong borders, oil and natural gas independence.”

Parks also repeated the theory Abbott had deployed in his tweet about Judge Guevara, that these defecters were not so much abandoning the Democratic Party so much as the party was abandoning them, alienating them with “increasingly leftist, progressive — I don’t think you can even call them values, but the things that they’re pushing, the transgender community … even things like the Biden administration saying there was 0% inflation in July.”

Guevara, when asked why she chose to run as a Republican, said the main issue that prompted her own red shift was that of abortion. “I just can’t put my name there,” she said of running as a Democrat. “I feel like we’re killing ourselves, we’re killing the next generation, and I don’t think it’s right. It’s very, very complex. It gets real sticky, but I won’t back down. I’ll never back down from saying that I believe in the sanctity of life from conception to now.”

Guevara said that she saw the fall of Roe v. Wade — and with it, the end of the federally guaranteed right to abortion — as a good thing, though she had not yet researched the current state of abortion restrictions in Texas. When asked whether she supported the current ban, which makes no exceptions for rape or incest, she said that she does. “I just feel like there’s already one wrong and another wrong isn’t going to fix it,” she said.

Despite her platform more closely aligning with the Republican Party, to affiliate herself with the party outright was a risky choice. In Presidio County, as Guevara herself acknowledged, to call oneself a Republican has long been a guarantee of loss. In the 2016 primary, the county’s then GOP Chair Todd Beckett scrambled to set up a polling place for the county’s few Republicans in time for early voting — of the county’s 5,000 registered voters, about 80 Republicans voted early that year. He assumed no one would show up on Election Day. There were no local Republican races. “Nobody runs locally as a Republican,” Beckett told The Texas Tribune at the time. “You can’t get public office here if you’re a Republican.”

The current county GOP chair, Dan Dunlap, took on these efforts in 2020. “What got me into all of this was the fact that Presidio County was dominated by the Democrat Party,” he said. “And there were no primaries. There was no [Republican] party that existed.” 

Parks argued that some rural, blue counties are blue simply due to lack of options. “Part of the thing to consider is, some of these counties that have had the appearance of being blue haven’t had full slates of Republican candidates to choose from.”

Dunlap has wanted to ensure that Republicans are able to vote — beyond that, he has wanted to ensure that candidates had the option to run as Republicans if they wished. “It just bothered me greatly that people were forced to run as Democrats in Presidio County if they were to compete — that’s how strong the Democrat Party is and has been in Presidio County,” he said. “There are a lot of very conservative candidates who have run Democrat.”

Buddy Knight, who competed and lost against David Beebe in the Democratic primary for county commissioner precinct 4, is one of them. “I’m pretty conservative, I’d say,” he acknowledged, though “not so far right that I can’t listen to somebody else.” 

Knight identifies with neither party — preferring to call himself an Independent — but, despite his self-described conservative politics, he chooses to run as a Democrat. This is a matter of deep-seated tradition and familial loyalty, he explained. 

“My grandfather came to Texas as a little boy at the end of the Civil War from Mississippi, and they were Democrats because all southerners were Democrats, and I was raised that way,” he said. His grandfather had such a profound influence on him, he still feels tied to the party of his ancestors. 

Dunlap had tried to convince Knight to run as a Republican, but he shot him down. It wasn’t just the voice of his grandfather in his head, though — it was also a matter of practicality. “Frankly, I don’t think a Republican can get elected in Presidio County, to tell you the truth,” he said. “Very few. I just don’t see it happening yet.” 

If any, Guevara’s run might prove the exception, he predicted. “I believe she has a good chance,” he said. “I think it will be a lot tighter race than anybody thought it would be a year ago.”

And Guevara concurs — she has felt that support from local voters, who tell her they still plan to cast their ballots for her despite her new party affiliation.

Knight’s stubborn party affiliation speaks to the as-of-yet intractable wrinkle in the battle for the soul of blue, rural West Texas — politicians who are Democrat by name are not necessarily Democrat by policy or belief. Republican operatives seem to be betting on more and more Democrats a la Knight and Guevara changing their affiliations as the state — and national — Democrat parties move farther afield of their grandfathers’ Democrat Party. As Parks put it: “Your former Presidio Democrats are not your Austin Democrats. And the reality is, the Keep Austin Weird Democrats are what’s controlling the Democrat narrative and the Democrat policies at this point in time.”

Dunlap put it more succinctly: “The Democrat Party today is not your daddy’s Democrat Party.” 

He believes, as Parks does, that the Democrat Party today is alienating more conservative and moderate voters and candidates with an “extremism” he observes on a state and national level, on matters of fiscal policy and border security.

“People don’t want to go down that socialism road,” he said. “And we’ve got borders that are wide open, people being bused all over the country … people see this stuff, and they’re pushing back.” (Amidst an increase in border crossings, Governor Abbott has had thousands of migrants sent by bus to the East Coast this year).

Dunlap became connected to Project Red Texas after Judge Guevara was courted by them, he said — they reached out and asked him if there were other Republican candidates in Presidio County. “They were looking for Hispanics that were interested in running Republican,” he recalled. “So there was Dave [Chavez] … they were excited about that.” It quickly became clear to him that the PAC could provide some tangible, on-the-ground assistance.

“They had already talked to the judge about providing signage. And so I just simply asked them if they would be interested in providing signage for our other candidates, and they were very happy to do so — and there’s high quality stuff, very nice.”

With campaign season heating up, candidates will soon be ramping up their efforts. Parks clarified that the Project Red Texas team is around to provide guidance, but won’t be coming to Presidio County to knock on doors — their goal is to enable candidates to guide their campaigns themselves. “We’re teaching them how to do it, because people need to learn how to fish, not be given fish,” said Parks.

Increased efforts by Republican operatives have not gone unnoticed by the opposition. Jason Ballman, who handles communications for the Presidio County Democratic Party, chalked it up to fear. “What I see is a lot of attempts by the Republicans to flip this county red, and I think that’s because they’re scared,” he said. “I think they know that Beto has a great chance of becoming our next governor and they’re trying to do everything they possibly can to make it feel like they’re going to win in all these border counties.”

And the abundant campaign signs themselves have not gone unnoticed, either. “It should be really alarming to a lot of people that we’re seeing outside Republican groups try to spend a lot of money here to influence our opinions,” said Ballman. 

Hilary Beebe, a Democratic organizer in Presidio County and wife of Democratic candidate David Beebe, said she has gotten some calls from people who “aren’t happy about the signage, and aren’t necessarily happy about these activities” — that is, “an outside organization to come in and try to influence our election with money raised on the outside, and purely partisan agenda.”

Still, both Ballman and Beebe expressed confidence that Presidio County will continue to vote for Democratic candidates. “I think that many people in Presidio County will say their values are aligned with the Democratic Party, and I think this will continue to be a very blue part of the state,” said Beebe.

It is an unassailable fact that registered Democratic voters far outnumber registered Republicans in Presidio County. In the primaries earlier this year, Guevara garnered 90 votes; her opponent, Joe Portillo, brought in 835. Willbanks, in the primary, got 34 votes. Chavez received 86 votes in the primary, while Garcia got 709. 

But those were the primaries. On Election Day, Presidio County voters of all parties will have options. Guevara, for her part, wonders if party loyalty will fall to the wayside altogether.

“Maybe people are going to be more open now to voting for the person, instead of the party,” she said. 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Project Red Texas began with 54 counties during its first election cycle. The PAC began with 54 candidates.