Moderate Democrats win two key South Texas runoffs, while another is too close to call

Morgan LaMantia defeated Sara Stapleton-Barrera in the Democratic primary runoff for Texas Senate District 27 on Tuesday. LaMantia is vying to replace retiring state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville. (Verónica G. Cárdenas For The Texas Tribune, Verónica G. Cárdenas For The Texas Tribune)

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The more moderate Democrats prevailed in two key primary runoffs Tuesday in South Texas, while a third was too close to call.

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With Republicans pushing hard to gain seats in what has become a more competitive part of the state, the runoffs carry considerable stakes for Democrats who have seen their hold on deep South Texas — which is predominantly Hispanic and has historically favored Democrats — weaken.

In the race to replace retiring state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, Morgan LaMantia defeated Sara Stapleton-Barrera in the Democratic primary runoff for Texas Senate District 27. LaMantia got 57% of the vote to 43% for Stapleton-Barrera.

Luis Villarreal beat Ruben Cortez to be the Democratic nominee for Texas House District 37, a new battleground district that Republicans placed in the Rio Grande Valley in the last round of redistricting. Villarreal earned 52% of the vote to Cortez’s 48%.

And in the 15th Congressional District, Michelle Vallejo came out of election night with only a 23-vote lead over Ruben Ramirez. The race had not been called as of early Wednesday morning.

“Though the race is too close to call, we are heartened by the clear path to victory,” Vallejo said in a statement.

In the highest-profile Democratic primary runoff in South Texas, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, declared victory Tuesday night while challenger Jessica Cisneros declined to concede. Cuellar had a 177-vote lead.

The victories by LaMantia and Villarreal are a win for a more pragmatic Democratic brand in the mold of Lucio, who had endorsed both of them. Both of their opponents — Stapleton-Barrera and Cortez — had challenged Lucio in the 2020 primary.

While the Cuellar-Cisneros contest captured national attention, the three other Democratic runoffs in South Texas put on display clear differences among Democrats heading into the November general election.

In the 15th Congressional District, Ramirez ran openly as a moderate, while Vallejo proudly campaigned as a progressive. They split on issues like the single-payer health care system known as Medicare for All, with Vallejo supporting it and Ramirez opposing it.

In Texas Senate District 27, LaMantia ran as a more traditional Democrat with Lucio’s support, though she distanced herself from some of his less popular positions inside the Democratic Party, including his opposition to abortion. Stapleton-Barrera campaigned on a more progressive platform, including a more muscular defense of abortion rights.

LaMantia was far better-funded than her opponent, benefiting from nearly $3 million in loans from her family, which owns L&F Distributors, a South Texas beer distributor.

And in Texas House District 37, Villarreal, a former Lucio aide, was unapologetic as he evoked the politics of his old boss, promising to work with both parties in Austin to get things done for the Rio Grande Valley. Cortez, a member of the State Board of Education, campaigned as a stronger advocate for Democratic values, vowing to fight for teachers and women targeted by the state’s rightward lurch last year.

Given that Stapleton-Barrera and Cortez had run against Lucio two years ago, their runoffs Tuesday served as a kind of grudge match between the powerful incumbent and his intraparty detractors. The runoff for HD-37 got especially nasty as Lucio got more involved toward the end, accusing Cortez of being an uneducated deadbeat.

There were also clear divides over immigration. The more moderate Democrats, like Ramirez and LaMantia, disagreed with President Joe Biden’s decision to end Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that border officials use to rapidly expel migrants, while their opponents supported it. LaMantia even ran TV ads criticizing Biden’s handling of the border.

All three districts are expected to be competitive in November given that Biden would have carried them by single digits. Republicans are especially motivated to flip the 15th Congressional District, which they see as one of their best pickup opportunities nationally — and effectively the centerpiece of their South Texas offensive.

In each district, Republicans already settled on their nominee in the March primary. The GOP nominee for the 15th Congressional District is Monica De La Cruz, who ran against Gonzalez in 2020 and came surprisingly close to unseating him. The Republicans’ candidate in Texas Senate District 27 is Adam Hinojosa, a business owner from Corpus Christi. And the GOP nominee for Texas House District 37 is Janie Lopez, vice president of the San Benito school board.

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