To stay in Congress, Mayra Flores bets Democratic South Texas is ready for an outspoken conservative

U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, stands outside of Our Lady of Sorrows church in McAllen on July 9 after an anti-abortion conference. (Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune)

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When Mayra Flores won the special election for Texas’ 34th Congressional District last month, she became the first Mexican-born woman to serve in Congress — and one of a few Republicans to ever represent the Rio Grande Valley in Washington, D.C.

That was the easy part.

Flores’ special-election victory gave Republicans a shot of momentum as they try to make a new battleground out of South Texas, a predominantly Hispanic region long dominated by Democrats.

“She is the beacon of hope right now,” said Adrienne Peña-Garza, the Hidalgo County GOP chair who helped introduce Flores to local politics just a few years ago.

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

Now the 36-year-old Mexican immigrant, who spent her childhood summers working in the cotton fields of the Texas Panhandle, faces a tougher election in a bluer district that could quickly cut short a promising political career.

After arriving in Congress a little over a month ago, Flores quickly carved out a profile unlike that typical of battleground incumbents, leaning into political fights and eschewing the ideological center. She cheered on the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, voted against the bipartisan gun control law and opposed legislation protecting same-sex marriage.

She remains vocal about the three values that centered her campaign — faith, family and country — and makes little apology about her politics.

“I’m conservative and have strong values, and that’s why we were successful in the special election,” Flores said in a recent interview.

In each of her recent votes, she sided with a majority of her GOP colleagues, though she is not just any Republican in the House. The district where she is running for a full term in November — covering a populous swath of the Valley and two counties north of it — would have been carried by President Joe Biden by 16 percentage points. It is a challenging landscape even in a national environment that favors Republicans.

If she wins in November, Flores could put the biggest exclamation point yet on Republicans’ drive to turn South Texas red. But if she loses, her monthslong stay in Congress could go down as the special-election aberration that Democrats are hoping for, especially after watching her first month in office.

“She’s made no bones about the conservatism in her faith and that she would be a firm conservative” if elected, said Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “And I think that’s something that’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition come November.”

Growing up

Flores was born in 1986 in Burgos, ​​Tamaulipas, Mexico, a small town about 150 miles south of the Texas-Mexico border. She remembers walking to school, growing close to her grandparents, attending countless family gatherings — and learning that her family would be going to the United States when she was 6 years old.

“I remember the kids in the school being happy for me the last day,” Flores said. “I clearly remember our teacher made the class aware that I was going to be going to the otro lado, meaning the other side, and everyone just looking at me, like, ‘Wow, you’re going to the other side.’”

Her family moved to the Rio Grande Valley but later became well acquainted with another part of the state: Memphis in Hall County, where they spent summers working in the cotton fields. Flores said she started at an early age — 13 — and spent summer days hoeing the fields surrounded by all kinds of family.

One of those family members was Elda Flores, her dad’s cousin who lived in the Memphis area. Elda Flores said Mayra Flores was a “go-getter” who did not let anything stop her, like when she was teased for having “garage-sale clothes.”

After working all day in the fields, the two girls were “still full of energy,” Elda Flores recalled, and would ride their bikes to the swimming pool.

Still, it was not all fun. Mayra Flores recalls waking up in pain at 4 in the morning and her mother rubbing Icy Hot on her sore hands.

“I still remember her getting emotional and telling me, ‘You don’t have to do this,’” Flores said. “And I remember saying, ‘No, I can.’ Because I knew that my parents couldn’t afford being able to buy needs, clothing and the school supplies.”

Flores graduated from high school in San Benito in 2004. Ten years later, she received an associate degree from South Texas College’s respiratory therapy program, and in 2019, got a bachelor’s degree from the school’s organizational leadership program.

Her time at the school overlapped with a growing interest in politics, and faculty saw a student emerging with the “potential to be a great leader,” said Ali Esmaeili, who chairs the organizational leadership program.

“She was thinking about her community, what she can do to provide to her community and transform her community, the region,” he said. “She had a long-term vision.”

Becoming politically involved

Growing up, Flores said her family never really talked politics. She was raised with “very conservative” values, she said, but when it came time to vote, her family defaulted to Democrat by tradition. When she asked her dad who to vote for in the 2008 presidential election, he told her Barack Obama.

“He’s conservative himself, but he voted Democrat because … that’s what we were told to do,” Flores said. “But we didn’t know what these parties stood for.”

Elda Flores, who has long considered herself a Republican, remembers one “heated debate” with Mayra Flores over her support for Barack Obama back then. They were hanging out at a friends’ house, and Elda Flores said the argument got so bad she “actually had to take a breather and go outside.” They agreed to stop talking about politics afterward.

Mayra Flores points to 2010 as the year she realized the true differences between the parties and “walked away” from the Democrats. The most clarifying issue, she said, was abortion, saying she saw how Republicans “fought for the unborn” compared with Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, meets with supporters after the Pro Life America's Hopeful Future conference in McAllen on July 9, 2022. Flores, recently sworn into office, faces an uphill battle in November as she competes against Vicente Gonzalez for the Texas CD-34 seat.
U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, meets with supporters July 9 after an anti-abortion conference in McAllen. Credit: Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune

Still, several years passed before Flores got involved in politics more formally. It happened during the federal government shutdown of late 2018 and early 2019, when the Hidalgo County GOP was holding an event to help wives of Border Patrol agents impacted by the shutdown. The wife of a Border Patrol agent, Flores went to the event and got to talking with the county party chair, Peña-Garza, about getting more involved.

Days later, Peña-Garza offered Flores the job of Hispanic outreach chair, a volunteer position, and Flores took it on with zeal. She spoke on behalf of the party in the media, block walked, phone banked, helped recruit candidates and worked with them on their social media, and opened and closed the office. Peña-Garza said there was no job too small for her.

Peña-Garza said Democrats in the Valley had “done a really good job of making us the villains.” But with her immigrant story and fluency in Spanish, Flores proved to be a “bridge for Hispanics,” the county chair said.

“I could see that for first-generational Hispanics especially, people that are not happy with the open borders, not happy with where the country is right now, but maybe they need a different messenger — that was Mayra,” Peña-Garza said.

At the same time, Flores built her own following on social media. When Flores started working for the county party, Peña-Garza said she had asked Flores to start her own Facebook page to share more of her story and opinions — and “not hold back.” Flores gladly obliged.

Flores posted videos discussing the news of the day, but she would “throw in her twist, the little flavor she has,” recalled Joacim Hernandez, chair of the Texas Young Republicans who hails from the Valley.

“I think she had a good feel, a good pulse, for what was the hot topic that the culture down here could relate to and switch the narrative up,” Hernandez said.

Special election and November

Flores’ eventual transition from activist to candidate was helped by another Hispanic GOP woman in the Rio Grande Valley: Monica De La Cruz. Flores took inspiration from De La Cruz’s 2020 campaign against U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, in the 15th District, which drew little attention until she came within 3 percentage points of winning — and helped fuel new GOP optimism throughout the region.

While Biden carried the 15th District by just 2 percentage points, he also underperformed in the neighboring 34th District, making it an additional GOP target heading into the midterms. Flores jumped into the race early, assuming she would be taking on the Democratic incumbent, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville. But then he announced he would not seek reelection, creating an even more enticing pickup opportunity for the GOP.

Then, redistricting happened. While it made the 15th District more favorable for De La Cruz, it made the 34th District more blue. Flores had traveled to Austin to beg the Republican mapmakers to reconsider, but they stuck with the map.

With Vela retiring, Gonzalez decided to seek reelection in the safer 34th District, and suddenly, Flores’ uphill battle seemed steeper than ever.

The twists and turns in South Texas politics were not over yet, though. A few months after redistricting was done, Vela announced he would step down early, prompting a special election to fill his seat under the previous, more competitive boundaries. Flores hardly waited to declare her candidacy for the special election.

Republicans from Brownsville to Washington, D.C., went all in on the special election, while national Democrats spent a small fraction of the GOP investment. Democrats argued it was not worth it for a seat that would likely remain in their column come November, when Gonzalez is the nominee in the bluer 34th District.

The special election was not even close. Flores scored an outright victory over the candidate Democrats had to rush to field, Dan Sanchez, 51% to 43%.

National and state Democrats brushed off Flores’ win as a fluke that would be irrelevant come November. But local Democrats saw it differently.

In his concession statement, Sanchez faulted the national party for not taking the special election more seriously. And days later, a coalition of county party chairs across South Texas sounded the alarm, noting how organized and unified Republicans had been.

“If these missteps continue, and South Texas continues to be ignored by national Democratic committees,” the county chairs said in a joint statement, “we risk losing South Texas to Republicans.”

First month in Congress

Flores’ first month in Congress was anything but uneventful. She was sworn in three days before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a decision that she celebrated without hesitation as polls showed it was unpopular in Texas.

“Honestly, this is a dream come true for me,” Flores said on Fox News shortly after the ruling came out.

The news obscured a more politically sensitive matter looming that morning for Flores, at least in her view. The Senate had just passed a bipartisan gun control bill, the first significant one in a generation, partly in response to the Uvalde school shooting in May. The House vote on the legislation would be Flores’ first major vote in Congress, and she had declined to tell a CNN reporter the night before how she would vote.

She ended up joining most of her GOP colleagues in voting no, even as the full House approved the bill and sent it to Biden’s desk. She issued a statement afterward saying the proposal did not provide enough money for school safety and that the process was too rushed.

U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, speaks at the Pro Life America's Hopeful Future conference in McAllen on July 9, 2022. Flores, recently sworn into office after a special election, faces an uphill battle in November as she competes against Democrat Vicente Gonzalez for the Texas CD-34 seat.
U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores speaks at an anti-abortion conference in McAllen on July 9. She has said that the overturning of Roe v. Wade was “a dream come true for me.” Credit: Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune

Gonzalez promptly criticized her for opposing the bill, noting in a statement it was “crafted by our state’s senior senator, John Cornyn” — a Republican. Speaking days later at a Hidalgo County GOP dinner, Flores seemed to acknowledge it was not an easy decision.

“In only one week that I was there, I remember I was going to be voting for a very controversial bill, and I was praying that morning that Roe vs. Wade would get overturned so the attention would be on that,” Flores said jokingly.

The controversial votes did not end there, though. With Democrats looking to codify same-sex marriage and birth control access after the Roe ruling, Flores voted against bills to do both of those things. She said the birth control bill “creates a back door to abortion.”

While most Republicans opposed the bills, few of them are in districts as competitive as Flores’ in November. And when it came to the legislation on guns and gay marriage, Flores split with a fellow South Texas Republican who had campaigned for her, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, whose district includes Uvalde.

The votes have all given Gonzalez’s campaign fresh fodder for the November election. The campaign issued a news release Monday saying that Flores has “already made her far right-wing views clear” after one month in office.

But Flores has been handed plenty of political opportunities herself, fueling viral tweets and a steady stream of Fox News appearances bashing Democrats as increasingly out of touch with Hispanic voters.

After her swearing-in ceremony, a clip went viral that showed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., nudging one of Flores’ daughters while posing for a photo. The New York Times published a story about Flores — and other Hispanic Republican women running for Congress in South Texas — titled “The Rise of the Far-Right Latina.” And earlier this month, first lady Jill Biden visited San Antonio and told a Latino civil rights group that the Hispanic community is “as unique as the breakfast tacos” in the city.

Gonzalez also has not done himself many favors. He disparaged Flores’ immigration story in a Newsweek interview, arguing he knows the district better because he was born in Texas. And most recently, it was uncovered that Gonzalez’s campaign has been paying a local blogger for advertising who has been slinging racist slurs at Flores.

“Vicente Gonzalez can’t handle running against a strong, accomplished Latina like Mayra Flores,” said Torunn Sinclair, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, denouncing Gonzalez’s “xenophobic and sexist attacks.”

Beating the odds in November

All the national attention following Flores could reach an abrupt end on Nov. 8.

Not only is the 34th District bluer thanks to redistricting, but turnout will be higher than the 7% seen in the special election. And she faces a more established Democratic opponent in Gonzalez, who had $1.4 million cash on hand at the end of June. By contrast, Flores had $114,000 cash on hand, her funds depleted by the special election.

Democrats say Flores can also expect far more scrutiny, and their opposition research file is well known.

As Hispanic outreach chair for the Hidalgo County GOP, she made multiple social media posts with a long list of hashtags that included some related to the QAnon conspiracy movement. She has said she never supported QAnon and that she was actually arguing against QAnon, though her campaign has yet to provide evidence of that claim.

She also made posts casting doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election and suggesting that President Donald Trump won. She has refused to address those posts and declined to entertain questions about the validity of the 2020 election, saying she is focused on future elections.

Flores gave a shoutout to Trump in her special-election victory speech.

“We have to state the facts that under President Trump, we did not have this mess in this country,” Flores said.

But it is unclear how much she plans to embrace him going forward, especially as the Jan. 6 hearings continue to tarnish his public image. In an interview, she was relatively restrained when asked about his impact on the Hispanic vote.

“I think that Hispanics just started seeing that they had more money in their pocket,” Flores said. “The Hispanic community was doing a lot better under the previous administration.”

Republicans are optimistic Flores can hang on despite the longer odds in November. They note Biden is only growing more unpopular, including among Hispanic voters, and economic concerns are not receding among voters.

And for all the talk of Gonzalez being a stronger opponent, they point out that he has already had ample missteps in his campaign.

In the special election, “it was a perfect storm,” said Macarena Martinez, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. “It’s even more of a perfect storm now.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Facebook and The New York Times have been financial supporters 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.

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Correction, July 27, 2022: This story initially misstated where Mayra Flores and her family worked in cotton fields. The correct location was Memphis, Texas.