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WASHINGTON — Fending off the Republican advance in South Texas this fall was already going to be a taller-than-usual order for Democrats. But few Democrats anticipated it would be this hard.
Thanks to a succession of self-inflicted choices, fallout from redistricting and some flat-out bizarre circumstances, Democrats are confronting a mind-numbing set of complications in their fight to hold on to three seats in South Texas. And national polling indicates Democrats have no room for error if they want to hold off a Republican challenge in a region that was once a historical Democratic stronghold.
The seats in question are held by U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen. A third vacant seat recently belonged to Filemon Vela of Brownsville, who stepped down to take a private sector lobbying job.
“For Democrats, there may simply be too many fires to put out at once,” national political analyst David Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, said to The Texas Tribune.
Democrats have been united and energized in recent days in their opposition to Gov. Greg Abbott ordering security checks of trucks crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a move that has ground trade in the region to a halt.
But they have multiple other vulnerabilities to contend with: In the 28th Congressional District, the FBI raided Cuellar’s home and campaign just ahead of his primary campaign. (His attorney has since said that Cuellar is not the target of the investigation.) In the neighboring 15th Congressional District, Gonzalez is vacating his once-safe, now-ripped-apart-by-Republicans district for safer ground, making it even harder for Democrats to hold on to his old seat. And in the 34th Congressional District, Vela abruptly resigned late last month, setting off a summer special election that could put a Republican incumbent on the ballot for that seat in the fall.
Going back to the 1980s, these three neighboring districts have traditionally made up South Texas, a region of the state with a high proportion of Hispanic voters that has leaned left politically. Emerging from the Rio Grande, each district stretches from border town population centers north through ranchland.
“Each of the South Texas districts has some unique circumstances, but they could all add up to a big headache for Democrats and make it more difficult to retain control of the House,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst and publisher for Inside Elections.
Nationally, Democrats have a slim margin of control in the House, and even losing one South Texas seat could jeopardize Democrats’ hold on the gavel. Currently, there are 23 Republicans and 12 Democrats in the Texas U.S. House delegation.
Per Wasserman, who rates the competitiveness of U.S. House races for a living, Democratic circumstances are becoming dire.
“President Biden's anemic approval ratings with Hispanic voters and on the immigration issue could already be putting TX-15 out of reach (now that it's a Trump seat), and the FBI raid and a Vela-triggered special election are massive distractions for Democrats in TX-28 and TX-34, respectively,” he wrote in an email to the Tribune.
House Democratic operatives say they’re ready for the fight.
Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said there are “challenges and opportunities in South Texas” and Democrats are not taking anything for granted.
“We’re confident in our Democrats in South Texas and our ability to run smart, nimble campaigns that will win in November,” she added.
34th Congressional District
Vela came to office in 2012 after a fresh round of reapportionment created the new 34th District.
He announced in March 2021 that he wouldn’t seek reelection in his district. But he upgraded his retirement announcement to a full-blown resignation on March 31, vacating his office nine months earlier than expected.
That move set off what will be a confusing special election in which the winner will hold the seat for only a matter of months, while creating an opportunity for Republicans to gain an advantage for the main event in November where they will face a more difficult district.
District 34 was redrawn by the Legislature last year to be a more safe seat for a Democrat, making it the Republicans’ hardest South Texas target in November. If the new map had been in place in 2020, President Joe Biden would have carried the district by 16 points.
But Vela’s exit means there will now be a June 14 special election that still adheres to the old district map, where Biden won by only 4 points, which could make it easier for a Republican to win. If a Republican wins the special election, it could boost their name recognition when they compete again in November.
Democrats are now dealing with a resulting scramble in South Texas.
Gonzalez is running for Vela’s open seat in November — after switching districts because redistricting tilted his district boundaries toward Republicans. Gonzalez already declined to run in the special election, given that he is still a sitting member of Congress.
There’s also little incentive for other Democrats to run for the special election. At best a candidate would be able to hold the office for a few months while not being allowed to run for reelection for the full term in November, since that primary has already been settled. Gonzalez won the Democratic primary for Vela’s seat in March.
“I wish we had a member till the end of the year,” Gonzalez said in an interview. “But it is what it is, and under the circumstances we gotta deal with what we have.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are giddy about the special election contest. The GOP nominee for the two-year term, Mayra Flores, is in the race.
“We see an opportunity to try and pick off this seat in the special,” said Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the Republican super PAC that controls much of the party’s House campaign general election spending.
“And if Mayra Flores wins, it gives her a significant jump-start of a fall campaign against a weak candidate in Vicente Gonzalez,” he added.
For Republicans, the stakes are historic: Should Flores win the special election, she will become the first Republican Latina elected to Congress from Texas. If that’s the case, her fall campaign against Gonzalez would mark the first member-versus-member federal race in Texas since 2004, when Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Martin Frost for a newly drawn Dallas seat after a mid-decade round of redistricting.
First: U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, speaks to the crowd at a campaign rally for then-senate candidate Beto O’Rourke at Edinburg in 2018. Last: Mayra Flores stands outside of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in McAllen on October 2021. Gonzalez and Flores are running for Vela’s open seat in November. Credit: Douglas Young and Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune
It is unclear how much Democrats will spend on a special election.
“Why would we want to spend a boatload of money for an election that is meaningless?” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said of the special election in an interview. “There’s not a doubt anywhere that Vicente Gonzalez is going to be sworn in in January of 2023.”
The most formidable Democrat running in the special election is former Cameron County justice of the peace and commissioner Dan Sanchez, who announced his own campaign last week.
Gonzalez, who will face Flores in November for the two-year term no matter what comes to pass over the summer, predicted a Democratic victory in the special election that “will take the wind out of the sail of most of the Republicans in South Texas, after we win that special.”
“It’ll be a preview of what’s coming in November,” he added.
For his part, Vela said he’s not worried that his exit will hurt Democrats’ chances for retaining the seat.
“Vicente is going to slaughter Mayra Flores in the November election,” Vela said in an interview on his last day in Congress. “I don’t think it’s going to be even near close.”
Flores responded in kind via text: “Congressmen Vela and Gonzalez will find out the hard way that South Texas Hispanics know the national Democratic Party has abandoned us in favor of radical policies that harm our communities.”
15th Congressional District
First elected in 2016, Gonzalez ran for Congress when the 15th District was once a safe Democratic seat.
This past fall, Republican state lawmakers gutted that original 15th District in redistricting, turning it from a seat Biden narrowly carried in 2020 to one that Trump would have won by almost 3 points. Gonzalez secured the 34th District nomination on March 1.
The destabilization of the 15th District is a direct result of Republican redistricting. Gonzalez did not flee his old seat for a friendlier one. Republicans did it for him, drawing a conspicuous peninsula out of the 34th District to bring in the Gonzalez residence, separating him from nearly all of his old constituents.
Members of Congress don’t have to live in their districts, and his move leaves behind an open-seat race for the 15th District, now the most endangered Democratic-held seat in Texas.
The Republican emphasis is on the 15th District, demonstrated by GOP nominee Monica de la Cruz Hernandez’s designation as a House GOP “Young Gun,” or top-tier candidate. GOP activity could expand further, though, as campaign committees are known to add candidates to these lists over the course of the cycle.
First: Michelle Vallejo, candidate for the 15th Congressional District, responds to questions during a Futuro RGV candidate forum in McAllen on Jan. 11. Last: Ruben Ramirez, also a candidate for the 15th Congressional District, speaks at the Futuro RGV candidate forum. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune
Two Democrats are battling it out in the May runoff: attorney Ruben Ramirez and businesswoman Michelle Vallejo.
Vallejo has the backing of state and national groups and politicians, including EMILY’s List, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia of Houston and state Reps. Terry Canales of Edinburg and Mando Martinez of Weslaco. Ramirez has endorsements from Gonzalez, Vote Vets PAC and the Blue Dog Democrats, a group that pushes for moderates. Both candidates have union endorsements.
More broadly, Gonzalez told the Tribune that national Democratic groups were failing South Texas Democrats. He called the DCCC, a member-driven institution with which he has clashed in the past, “asleep at the wheel when it comes to South Texas.”
But there is an equitable amount of Democratic frustration on Capitol Hill for having to deal with the open-seat race and the Vela vacancy.
DCCC staffers say the committee has hired two staffers in the 15th District and the committee is in the process of expanding that staff and opening a headquarters there as well.
28th Congressional District
And then there is Laredo.
In January, the FBI raided Cuellar's home and campaign office. The FBI has yet to elaborate on why it conducted the raids so close to the election, a highly controversial move by the Department of Justice.
Cuellar has proclaimed his innocence. But six weeks later, he found himself in the first Democratic runoff of his congressional career.
Cuellar’s attorney Joshua Berman told the Tribune that a DOJ official told him that Cuellar was not the target of the investigation. The DOJ did not comment when asked to verify the claim.
But it was not merely the ugliness of an unexplained raid. For the last three years, liberals have been trying to chase Cuellar out of office and spending big against him. Their candidate is attorney Jessica Cisneros, who challenged Cuellar two years ago.
She is at the vanguard of the progressive left in Texas, but she is running in a district where many Catholic voters do not agree with her social positions — particularly on abortion.
“It’s not so much a problem that there would be no incumbent running, it’s that Cuellar’s rival could be too far left for the general electorate,” said Wasserman, the political analyst, reflecting a consensus that Republicans privately hold.
First: Jessica Cisneros talks to supporters at her campaign headquarters before they head out to canvass in Laredo on Feb. 19. Last: U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar campaigns on Super Tuesday in Laredo in 2020. Credit: Jessica Rodriguez and Ulysses Romero for The Texas Tribune
Cisneros’ campaign manager Regina Monge said pundits like Wasserman have it all wrong.
“Voters like Jessica because she’s independent, not accepting a dime of corporate money and represents change from the status quo. She’s focused on the issues that matter to South Texans: health care and good jobs,” she said.
Republicans Cassy Garcia — a former staffer to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — and activist Sandra Whitten are currently in a runoff election for the GOP nod to take on whomever wins the Cuellar-Cisneros nomination fight. Garcia recently picked up an endorsement from U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
House Republicans argue Democrats’ South Texas problems are rooted in policy. Ever since Democrats underperformed in 2020, a widespread consensus settled on the notion that positions like defunding the police and the Green New Deal from out-of-state politicians did significant damage to the party in South Texas.
“South Texas has become Democrats’ worst nightmare,” wrote House GOP campaign spokesperson Torunn Sinclair, blaming Democratic policies on the border, energy and economy in an email to the Tribune. “Trends show South Texas is already leaning Republican, and Democrats have done nothing to reverse the trend, and their policies are making it worse.”
Moses Mercado, a Washington-based Democratic lobbyist who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, blames Republican control of redistricting for much of the South Texas turbulence.
“This is their dream,” he said of Republican ambitions in South Texas. “They created the mess.”
What is clear: Both parties are organizing here in ways they have not before. National party staffers are on the ground, and the cheap television markets will likely feature political commercials on loop by September.
“We’re changing how we do business in South Texas this cycle,” said Robinson, the House Democratic campaign spokesperson. “The DCCC is reaching voters earlier than ever before, we’re being intentional about how we communicate with Hispanic voters in the Valley and we’re resuming in-person organizing after Democrats put public health over politics in 2020.”
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