How Mayra Flores flipped a Rio Grande Valley congressional seat and gave Republicans hope for a new era in South Texas

Sabrina Cantu, a volunteer coordinator for Mayra Flores, puts up signs outside a watch party event in San Benito on Tuesday. Flores won a special election for a congressional seat, making her the first Republican elected to Congress from that region in more than a century. (Reuters/Veronica G. Cardenas, Reuters/Veronica G. Cardenas)

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After a redistricting proposal made Texas’ 34th Congressional District more blue last fall, the top Republican candidate for the seat, Mayra Flores, traveled to the state Capitol in Austin to plead with lawmakers to reconsider.

It seemed, she said, that despite all the new Republican talk about competing in South Texas, the GOP map-drawers were “sending the message of not really caring about” voters there, depriving them of a competitive district.

But lawmakers were unswayed and eventually passed a map that transformed the 34th District from one that President Joe Biden carried in 2020 by just 4 percentage points — a bona fide battleground for the 2022 midterms — to one that he would have won by 16 points.

It was a blow to Flores, but in a twist of fate, nine months later, she is heading to Congress from the 34th District — and earlier than expected. She now carries the distinction of being one of the few Republicans to represent the Rio Grande Valley in modern history as well as the first Mexican-born woman to serve in Congress.

[Republicans flood South Texas special election as national Democrats keep distance]

Her outright victory in the special election is just the latest chapter in a topsy-turvy election cycle in South Texas, which Republicans have been working overtime to turn into a new battleground ever since Biden’s underperformance throughout the region in 2020. And it came together thanks to a Democratic incumbent, Filemon Vela, who decided to quit early for a high-paying K Street job, a GOP that was unflinching in its ambitions to capture the seat and a national Democratic Party that purposefully chose to keep its distance.

Flores will get to serve only until January, and she faces a much different election in November for the full term, when the new, bluer district is in effect and her opponent will be U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen. State and national Democrats were quick to point that out as results came in Tuesday night, but even then, some Democrats said the lessons of Flores’ special-election breakthrough should not be disregarded.

One of those lessons they made crystal clear: The national party needs to pay more attention to South Texas.

“Her resources were vast and we’ve seen over and over again that sometimes it’s very hard to defeat an extremely well-funded opponent,” said state Rep. Alex Dominguez, D-Brownsville. “They took this election seriously.

“I have yet to see a significant or even mediocre involvement by the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] in South Texas,” Dominguez added.

Collin Steele, the campaign manager for Flores’ opponent in the special election, Dan Sanchez, was more unsparing in a statement Wednesday.

“The DCCC, DNC, and other associated national committees have failed at their single purpose of existence: winning elections,” Steele said. “The loss in TX34 was a complete and total abdication of duty.

“We gave up a reliably Democratic Congressional seat for no reason at all; we deserve to know why,” Steele said.

The DCCC on Wednesday downplayed the impact of the Republican victory.

“The only thing the [National Republican Campaign Committee] proved last night is that they can barely get their MAGA Republican candidates across the finish line when they outspend the Democrat 20 to 1 and if only 7% of the electorate turns out to vote,” DCCC spokesperson Monica Robinson said. “This seat is a rental for Republicans and we look forward to welcoming Vicente Gonzalez back to Congress this fall.”

The special election was called because Vela decided to step down early to take a job at the lobbying firm Akin Gump. Vela had already announced in March 2021 he was not seeking reelection, and some Democrats wondered why Vela could not just wait several more months and finish out his term, depriving the GOP of a pickup opportunity.

Speaking with The Texas Tribune hours before he submitted his resignation in March, Vela expressed confidence his seat would remain blue in a special election and said he was not aware of any efforts to get him to reconsider resigning.

“Nobody has tried to dissuade me,” Vela said at the time.

Vela did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Flores was already the Republican nominee for the seat in November, so the special election was a no-brainer and she announced quickly. Soon followed Sanchez, a Harlingen attorney who launched with the support of both Vela and Gonzalez.

One other Democrat and one other Republican filed, but they posed little threat.

While some whispered that Sanchez was the Democrats’ sacrificial lamb, the party had ample reason to have faith in him. He had been a longtime political fixture in Cameron County — the biggest, bluest area of the congressional district — and seemed poised to carry the banner of the more moderate Democratic brand in South Texas as a self-described “conservative Democrat” and “pro-life” Catholic. He routinely livestreams he and his family saying the rosary together on Facebook.

But Democrats were utterly outmatched by what the Republicans were willing to invest on behalf of their candidate. By the time early voting started, they had dumped nearly $1 million on TV ads in the Harlingen media market, a relatively small and cheap market where an ad dollar can go a long way. Democrats spent zero by that point.

TV was not the only national investment, though. The NRCC and Texas GOP put in $1.1 million for voter contact, according to an NRCC memo released Wednesday, and the state party invested $500,000 in English- and Spanish-language mail. The top Republican super PAC for House elections, the Congressional Leadership Fund, piled on with a $200,000 ad buy for Flores as early voting began.

Flores’ campaign ultimately outraised Sanchez’s by nearly 10 to 1.

Family was a big part of Flores’ messaging, an appeal to a time-worn South Texas value. She regularly talked about being the wife of a U.S. Border Patrol agent and showcased other members of her family, including in a TV commercial exclusively about her dad.

Behind the scenes, Gonzalez was persistently lobbying the DCCC to get involved, arguing that they were not seeing the full picture: If Republicans pick up just one congressional seat in South Texas — even if just for a handful of months — that would dramatically upend politics in the longtime Democratic stronghold and put the dream of a blue Texas statewide further out of reach.

About halfway through early voting, the DCCC yielded and made a comparatively small investment in the race, helping fund a $100,000 digital ad buy with Sanchez’s campaign. Then, a few days later, the top Democratic super PAC in House races, House Majority PAC, launched TV ads slamming Flores as an extremist, seeking to tie her to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol through past social media activity casting doubt on the 2020 election results.

The $115,000 buy was a significant last-minute investment but it was perhaps too little, too late, as it followed nearly a month of GOP TV ads pitching Flores in the most flattering light.

Some Democrats openly worried about Flores’ attractive image going unchallenged in the race. The state Democratic Party chair, Gilberto Hinojosa, conceded Flores “looks sweet in commercials” while criticizing her during one campaign stop with Sanchez. Sanchez said at an election-eve rally that national Republicans were only looking for a “profile” in South Texas races. “Female, good-looking, Latina — that’s who they’re after,” he said.

But Flores and her allies also talked about the issues, namely border security and the economy. She sought to speak to the financial stress many Americans are feeling under inflation, flashing images of high gas prices in TV ads. And she put it all in the context of her modest upbringing as a Mexican immigrant whose parents brought her to the country at a young age, seeking a better life.

“Hispanics by and large are a middle-class, hard-working people,” said Abraham Enriquez, founder and president of Bienvenido US, a conservative Hispanic group that backed Flores. “They’re thinking, ‘Which political party is really driving the economic conversation?’”

One progressive organizer in the Rio Grande Valley, Denisce Palacios, said Flores’ strategy was a smart one — and proof that Democrats need to do more to appeal to working-class voters.

“She wasn’t really campaigning as a Republican,” Palacios said of Flores. “She’s talking about the fact that people are overworked and underpaid. We don’t have enough money to put food on the table, rent is increasing at an alarming rate.

“Those are the same things that progressive people are saying and yet Democratic leaders don’t want to invest in those candidates,” Palacios added.

The early vote

One of the most revealing episodes of the special election was the early vote, which left Democrats feeling optimistic and Republicans less certain, at least about the potential for an outright win by their candidate.

One GOP analysis found that nearly half of the early voters — 47% — had Democratic primary voting history, while only 32% had Republican primary voting history and the rest had no primary voting history. (Texas does not have party registration, so campaigns try to approximate the partisan makeup of early vote turnout by looking at voters’ primary voting history.)

Democrats were seeing a similar breakdown in their early vote — and the projected Democratic turnout was even larger when they factored in other data.

Sanchez gave voice to that Democratic optimism when he suggested during an election-eve rally that he had a shot at winning the special election without a runoff.

“Our numbers are super close,” Sanchez said. “Out of all of the votes, the analysis puts us at 49% right now.”

But Flores ended up winning the early vote 47% to 46%, suggesting that a good chunk of voters with Democratic primary voting history crossed over to support her.

Inside Flores’ campaign, they had taken the early-vote analysis with a grain of salt, figuring that in a traditional Democratic stronghold like South Texas, even people who consider themselves Republicans participate in Democratic primaries because they are often the only competitive elections. Another caveat for both parties: Some of the analysis is only as good as the voter contact it relies upon, and South Texas has just not seen enough of the kind of competitive general elections that produce the most professional data.

Election night and what’s next

Flores ended up doing much better on election day — getting 55% to Sanchez’s 40% — on her way to defeating him by an overall margin of 51-43. She even carried Cameron County, long elusive for Republicans running at the federal level.

Turnout was low — 7% — but it was not anything too out of the ordinary for a special election in Texas.

In his concession statement, Sanchez said “too many factors were working against us, including little to no support from the National Democratic Party and the [DCCC].” Gonzalez agreed in a statement Wednesday, saying Sanchez should be proud of the “campaign he ran with limited resources and support from the national Democratic Party.”

“I have said it before and I will say it again - early, sustained investment is critical to ensuring South Texas continues to be represented by individuals” who deliver for their constituents, Gonzalez said.

Democrats also implied Flores should be ready for more than just a week of negative TV ads in the fall.

“The more people learn about Mayra Flores the more they will learn that she is nothing more than a messenger for the Republican fear machine,” Gonzalez said.

Republicans know the race will be harder in the fall, but overnight into Wednesday, GOP operatives were daring Democrats to keep underestimating them. Plus, they believe Flores’ win will bring residual momentum — fundraising or otherwise — for two other Latina Republicans running for Congress in South Texas, Monica De La Cruz in the 15th District and Cassy Garcia in the 28th District.

Sanchez predicted as much hours before polls opened Tuesday, warning voters about what would happen if Flores were the 34th District incumbent come November.

“What does that do for South Texas?” he said. “It destroys us because then all the Republican money all over the country’s gonna come to South Texas, and it’s gonna affect other races.”​​

James Barragán and Abby Livingston contributed reporting.

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