Just hours after voting started in Texas, Kimberly Rubio cast her ballot in the same Uvalde city building where she waited in May to learn that her daughter, Lexi, was one of 19 fourth-graders fatally shot at Robb Elementary School.
“If our children aren’t safe, neither are your jobs,” Rubio said as she walked out of her polling place with an “I voted” sticker. Nearby, another woman waved a “Don’t tread on me” flag.
The deadliest classroom shooting in Texas history has cast a long shadow in the midterm elections, intensifying Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign against Democrat Beto O’Rourke and driving a blitz of television ads. On Thursday, a Republican congressman joined calls for Texas’ state police chief to resign, reflecting continued anger five months after the massacre.
Get Boston local news, weather forecasts, lifestyle and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Boston’s newsletters.
But with more than 1 million votes already cast in Texas, Uvalde families who have been most outspoken since the May 24 attack are facing an uphill climb for bigger shakeups on Election Day, including a change in governor.
Abbott, who has waved off calls to tighten Texas gun laws since the shooting, has never trailed in polls. He is also seizing on national headwinds facing Democrats, who are in danger of losing control of the U.S. House, which could scuttle the chances of tougher gun laws at the federal level for the next two years.
Democrats have hoped outrage in Texas over the latest in a grim series of mass shootings would rouse voters to the polls. Through Thursday, turnout was so far lower than 2018 levels in the state’s largest counties, which also have the heaviest concentration of Democratic votes. Another week of early voting is still ahead.
“We’re still in a very Second Amendment-friendly state,” said Matt Langston, a Republican political strategist in Texas, where many residents proudly tout their constitutional right to bear arms.
School safety is still an issue for voters, he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily translate to, ‘Let’s tighten gun restrictions.’ It appears that it is more, ‘We’ve got to protect where we’re sending our kids.’ It’s kind of a nuanced response,” Langston said.
Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales, whose South Texas district includes Uvalde, became the first major GOP figure this week to call for the resignation of the state’s police chief over the hesitant law enforcement response and shifting narratives from authorities.
Families of the victims have kept the pressure on Col. Steve McCraw, the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who said Thursday that his police force “did not fail” Uvalde. Two officers have been fired, others are under investigation, and Uvalde’s school superintendent abruptly announced his retirement this month.
But even just blocks from Robb Elementary, where a sprawling memorial of wooden crosses and stuffed animals remains outside the shuttered campus, there are reminders that the shooting is not the biggest concern for many voters.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with my vote,” said Dolly Schultz, 52, a Navy veteran and local GOP precinct chair. “There was a lot of failures, with law enforcement and everywhere else. But most of those people are not running for office so I don’t think that really impacts my vote.”
President Joe Biden’s closing arguments heading into the Nov. 8 election are zeroing in on economic issues amid raging inflation and fears of a recession. A June poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about 30% of Americans mentioned gun policy as one of the major issues facing the country.
In 2018, Florida lawmakers enacted new restrictions on guns just three weeks after the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In that same timeframe, Republicans in Texas — who are poised to keep a commanding majority in the state Legislature after Election Day — have gone the other direction, expanding gun access after mass shootings at Santa Fe High School in suburban Houston and at an El Paso Walmart.
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was one of 17 people killed in the Florida shooting, said his advice to Uvalde parents is to not get frustrated or discouraged.
“They slow things down, they make progress harder,” Guttenberg said of opponents. “But we the voters get a choice.”
Among Uvalde’s early voting locations is the civic center where parents were told to wait on the day of the May 24 shooting. In the parking lot Monday, Javier Cazares set up a blue canopy and sat behind a table with three tidy stacks of campaign pamphlets on the first day of early voting, when more than 700 ballots were cast in the county.
His daughter Jackyln, 9, died in the shooting. Now he is running as a write-in candidate for Uvalde County commissioner. “Some people hear us, some tend to turn the other way. But we are not going to stop doing this,” Cazares said.
As other parents whose children died in the shooting arrived to vote together, they each held up signs for Cazares while examining a sample ballot to learn how a write-in vote works. They buzzed in anticipation to place their votes.
“We have had people fighting for the last 15 years, Columbine to Virginia Tech, there’s a lot of people who are still out there fighting,” Cazares said. “That is going to be me from here on out.”