As Republicans try to flip open seat in South Texas, Democrats debate how to win over voters

The U.S. Capitol in January. (Jason Garza For The Texas Tribune, Jason Garza For The Texas Tribune)

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John Villarreal Rigney, a businessman running for Congress in South Texas, has run into voters who say they cannot vote for him because he is a Democrat — “You’re AOC,” they say, referring to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the firebrand progressive from New York.

“I say, ‘No, there’s other types of Democrats besides AOC,’” Rigney said. “It’s a matter of getting the entire country to understand that not all Democrats are liberal like that.”

That Democratic identity crisis is at the forefront in the race for Texas’ 15th Congressional District, which could be the state’s only competitive congressional seat in November thanks to redistricting. With the general election in mind, the Democratic primary candidates have been weighing what it means to be a South Texas Democrat — as Republicans have made significant inroads throughout the region.

In the Republican primary, frontrunner Monica De La Cruz is scoffing at the Democrats’ efforts to distinguish themselves, while she’s running with the support of former President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and House GOP leadership. But even then, she has not been able to avoid a skirmish inside her own party as she faces a self-funding Democrat-turned-Republican, Mauro Garza, who is criticizing her as the “establishment candidate” and aligning himself with the most pro-Trump elements of the party.

“I think that the people in Texas [Congressional District] 15 have gotten to know me over the last three years, and they know and believe that I’m a true conservative, that I’m a hard worker and I do what I say I’m gonna do,” said De La Cruz, who ran for the seat in 2020 and came surprisingly close to beating the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen.

Gonzalez is now running for reelection in the neighboring 34th District due to redistricting, where he faces a safer race as a Democrat. His late October decision to do so created an open seat in the 15th District, where De La Cruz had already been running for months with the support of national Republicans. They are eager to capitalize on President Joe Biden’s underwhelming numbers throughout South Texas in 2020, and the 15th District was Exhibit A: He carried it by only 2 percentage points. Redistricting only tilted it more in favor of Republicans.

When the dust settled on Gonzalez’s district switch, there were six Democrats running for the 15th District, which runs north from the Rio Grande Valley to outside San Antonio. They include Rigney, who has self-funded his campaign with $300,000; Ruben Ramirez, a lawyer who has run for the seat twice before and is also running a more moderate campaign; and Michelle Vallejo, a small business owner recruited by LUPE Votes, a local progressive organizing group, who is the candidate running furthest to the left.

Last week, Ramirez received Gonzalez’ endorsement for his soon-to-be former seat. Ramirez has also been endorsed by the chair of the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona. While the political arm, CHC BOLD PAC, has not endorsed in the primary, it released a polling memo this week arguing that Ramirez is the best candidate for the general election, saying 69% of voters deemed his biography a convincing reason to vote for him.

Ramirez, an Army veteran who has also worked as a science teacher, said it has become “very clear that there is only one candidate who can win November, and that’s me.”

On the campaign trail, Ramirez emphasizes that he is a “South Texas Democrat,” not a “New York Democrat” or a “California Democrat.” He talks about the dilemma that South Texas Democrats face when they tune in to CNN, for example, and see a Democratic representative calling for “open borders” and a Republican representative calling for “law and order.”

“The Democrats sitting at home in South Texas, they’re saying, ‘I believe what the Republican just said. Am I Republican?’” Ramirez said. He added that tries to speak to those voters — “not at them” — and say that it is “OK to have a few of those conservative ideals, like wanting to make sure you secure the border but doing so in a way that’s consistent with our values."

Ramirez said bipartisanship is necessary to solve border problems, and as part of that give and take, there may need to be a wall in certain places. He said Border Patrol agents tell him a wall does work in some areas, though he made clear he does not see it as the only solution for border security.

Still, that position sets him apart from at least one competitor, Vallejo, who is running on a more progressive platform that she said is a “really big difference” in the primary. She supports Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage, positions that have sparked tension with some of her competitors.

One of them, Eliza Alvarado, pushed back at a recent debate on Medicare for All, saying it is too costly. Alvarado, who works at the state’s education service center in the Rio Grande Valley, noted the region still does not have a veterans hospital.

“We need to go to Washington with ideas that are feasible,” said Alvarado, a former staffer for Gonzalez’ predecessor in the seat, Rubén Hinojosa, who has endorsed her.

Asked about voters who may be concerned she is too liberal for the general election, Vallejo said she wants to hear them out.

“My message to those folks is that this is a working relationship. We need to talk about this,” she said, adding that she wants to educate people about how, for example, Medicare for All would benefit South Texas with all the unique health care challenges it faces, like its high uninsured rate.

The Democratic candidates have largely kept their campaigns positive, though the contrasts have become increasingly evident. Noting Ramirez has run for the seat twice before, Vallejo said he is “following the same equation” and pitched herself as a fresher face who would bring more people into the electorate. Asked if Vallejo’s policies would be acceptable in a general election, Ramirez reiterated that he believes he is the only “viable” candidate for November.

Rigney, meanwhile, said his platform is all about “everything that is good for families,” a key South Texas value. And he argued he is best suited for the general election because Democrats need to try something different and field a businessman, not a “typical politician.”

Many of the Democratic candidates agree, however, that their brand needs help after 2020 in South Texas. Rigney said it was a “wake-up call.”

Campaigning last month in Seguin, Vallejo got a question from a local activist who said she was worried about Latino turnout in the area, observing that many of them do not feel like people in power are fighting for them. Vallejo said she was almost relieved to hear that “because that is the population that we’re really targeting with my campaign.”

“I’m brand new, and I think it’s an opportunity for our district and for our home to redefine what Democratic values are,” Vallejo said. “I think right now, within the Democratic Party, there’s infighting, and there’s so much work that my campaign and I feel like we have to do to reassure people that the Democratic Party is here for them.”

De La Cruz vs. Garza

Touting her near-upset in 2020, De La Cruz has already been looking toward the general election. She scoffs at the Democrats’ efforts to distinguish themselves from out-of-state Democrats, calling them “naive.”

“Vicente Gonzalez was from the Rio Grande Valley and knew the South Texas values and still voted with a 97% voting record with Nancy Pelosi,” De La Cruz said, referring to the Democratic House speaker.

In the Republican primary, there are nine candidates, but the final showdown is between Garza and De La Cruz as she looks for an outright win. Garza has criticized her as Washington’s handpicked candidate and has embraced the most pro-Trump fringes of the GOP, airing a TV ad that asks “what really happened” during the Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol.

Garza downplayed De La Cruz’s endorsement from Trump, saying “Kevin McCarthy has Trump’s ear a lot quicker than me,” referring to the House minority leader who has endorsed De La Cruz. Garza pitched himself as the “pro-Freedom Caucus, pro-Trump” candidate, vowing to join the caucus, which has a history of bucking leadership, if elected.

Garza has also gone after De La Cruz by running a TV ad that says she “has failed at everything she’s done,” attacking her over the liabilities she reported on her latest personal financial disclosure. It shows 10 outstanding loans related to homes, cars and small business. Her campaign characterized the loans as normal for a homeowner, property investor and small business owner.

In an interview, De La Cruz ignored Garza’s attacks. She repeatedly emphasized her near-win against Gonzalez, saying her “best argument [in the primary] is that I never stopped working for the people since 2020 when this was deemed a Democratic stronghold.”

However, one of the top groups supporting De La Cruz, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has been airing a radio ad attacking Garza, calling him a “liberal” who Texans cannot trust. The spot brings up his history as a Democrat and claims he “contributed $100,000 to a liberal organization who promoted the transgender agenda.”

Garza said the $100,000 is a reference to various groups he has donated to over the years, not any single cause. The Human Rights Campaign, a pro-LGBTQ organization, honored Garza in 2009 for his giving, but he said the only money he gave them was in connection with the event where he was recognized.

Garza did not deny he previously identified as a Democrat.

“I’ve not been a Republican all my life — six years — but I’m as conservative as I was when I was voting Democrat and not knowing why,” Garza said. “I don’t think I’m the only one.”

The national view

While De La Cruz has the clear support of the national GOP in her primary, such endorsements have been more scattered among the Democrats. Ramirez has the support of VoteVets, which works to elect Democratic veterans, and 314 Action, which supports candidates with scientific backgrounds. Vallejo has been endorsed by the Voter Protection Project, a Democratic group focused on rights, as well as Wendy Davis, the former gubernatorial nominee and abortion rights activist.

Even with Gonzalez gone, national Democrats continue to treat the 15th District as a top priority for maintaining their majority in November. And they are already attacking De La Cruz, including over claims made by her estranged husband throughout their divorce case, which began earlier this election cycle. He has alleged in court documents that she verbally abused their teenage daughter and pinched her to stop her from crying.

“The best Republicans have to offer South Texans are a candidate facing allegations of ‘cruel’ mistreatment of a child in her care, and a guy who skirts campaign law and spreads unhinged conspiracy theories about the election,” Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement, referring to both De La Cruz and Garza. “The more voters learn about Monica De La Cruz, the less there is to like, and it’s why she’ll never make it to Congress.”

De La Cruz said in November that she was divorcing her husband, Johnny Hernandez, adding that they were “dealing with some mental health issues in our family.” In an interview, she denied his allegations that she abused their teenage daughter, noting “there are no police reports, no [Child Protective Service] reports and no charges” filed with authorities.

“Divorce is a sad thing, and I am disappointed that my husband has chosen to take this route,” she said.

National Republicans remain upbeat about the district, especially after the late start on the Democratic side. De La Cruz had $345,000 cash on hand as of Feb. 9, far ahead of any of the Democrats. Rigney, the self-funder, had $247,000, while Ramirez had $57,000 and Vallejo $26,000.

The National Republican Congressional Committee ignored the DCCC’s attacks on De La Cruz in a statement for this story.

“Democrats are doing whatever they can to distract from the fact they’re responsible for rising prices, increased crime and the on-going border crisis impacting Texans every single day,” NRCC spokesperson Torunn Sinclair said.

Disclosure: Human Rights Campaign has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.