In Texas’ most competitive congressional race, neither candidate is running toward the center

From left: Monica De La Cruz, Congressional District 15 Republican candidate, and Michelle Vallejo, Democratic candidate. (The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

In Texas’ most competitive congressional race this November, conventional wisdom would suggest that the candidates make their way toward the middle.

Recommended Videos

Democrats face fresh challenges in the newly drawn South Texas district that would have voted for former President Donald Trump by 2.8 percentage points in 2020, and massive infusions of cash from national Republicans hoping to tap into the area’s economic concerns amid record inflation. Meanwhile, Republicans will be pitching in a Hispanic-majority region that has delivered Democrats victories for decades.

But this November, voters in Texas’ 15th Congressional District will choose between two candidates who are largely playing to their parties’ bases: Michelle Vallejo, a progressive Democrat who supports abortion rights, “Medicare for All” and a $15 minimum wage; and Monica De La Cruz, a conservative, anti-abortion Republican who is backed by Trump.

The two political rookies are running for an open seat that is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, as he runs in the freshly redrawn 34th Congressional District — which is friendlier for Democrats. CD-15 runs a lengthy stretch of the state from Guadalupe County east of San Antonio to the Mexican border in Hidalgo County. To drive from one end to the other would take over four hours.

Both parties say the race has implications far beyond the district. It will be a litmus test of sustained Democratic appeal to Latino voters against Republicans’ harder-line messaging on issues like immigration and abortion as they attempt to take ground from their opponents.

For Republicans, it’s a redo of the 2020 election, when De La Cruz came within less than 3 percentage points of unseating Gonzalez in the traditionally Democratic district. But this round, De La Cruz has a massive campaign pocketbook, reporting nearly $3 million in receipts by the end of June, in contrast to the approximately $422,000 raised in the entire 2020 cycle. It’s also a more level playing field for her this year as the district previously was drawn with a slight Democrat advantage and she was up against an incumbent.

De La Cruz is in many ways representative of the newer classes of Republican lawmakers — bombastically on-message and unflinching on issues such as border security, abortion and inflation. Her message taps into the Christian values of many multigenerational immigrant families in the region who worked hard to achieve the American dream.

Democrats, on the other hand, are entering novel territory with Vallejo, who doesn’t match the moderate, middle-aged and male profile that has long defined South Texas congressional Democrats. She is an unapologetic progressive, vocal on protecting access to abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and espousing a community-centered message anchored in local ties from working at her family’s pulga. She also pushes for compassionate health care policy following her mother’s death from multiple sclerosis at 46.

Vallejo defeated Ruben Ramirez, a Gonzalez-endorsed moderate, by only 35 votes in the Democratic primary, campaigning on a platform of expanded health protections and a federal jobs guarantee to help build out a carbon-free energy sector.

The more progressive approach has Republicans gleeful. GOP operatives say it would be a much more competitive race if they faced a more socially conservative and business-friendly Democrat akin to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Cuellar is a fierce advocate for his district’s oil and gas interests and remains the last anti-abortion Democrat in Congress.

But on closer examination, Vallejo isn’t cut from the same cloth as other progressives who have uprooted national Democratic political conventions in the past several years, often to the consternation of the old guard. Though she is adamantly on board for addressing climate change, her message sticks to the job opportunities renewable energy could provide to areas dominated by the fossil fuel industry. She calls for greater funding to update ports of entry and support for border patrol agents facing low morale, acknowledging that many of her would-be constituents work in border security — an issue many national Democrats simply avoid discussing all together.

“I truly believe that people in D.C. and national Democrats don’t quite understand the border region and the things that we need when it comes to immigration and having worked in policy that allows people to have pathways to citizenship,” Vallejo said.

Gonzalez said in an interview that Vallejo is a strong candidate, capable of standing her ground in the face of Democratic doctrine if she feels it necessary for her community.

“Michelle has great progressive values, and she’s also very much a pragmatist who wants to get things done for her community,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, a fellow progressive representing a border district whom Vallejo described as an important ally.

Vallejo got the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose ranks including members with national profiles like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and plans to join their ranks. But she also said she was building ties with more moderate branches of the party, including members in the centrist New Democrats caucus. Much of her campaigning is based on building personal relationships in the district, she said, noting that voters in the area more often support a candidate they trust over a party that waves ideology to them.

But that moderation in her messaging has led to Republicans accusing Vallejo of changing her tune, saying it shows that her progressive message isn’t right for the district. Republicans highlighted edits to Vallejo’s campaign website this summer that erased some of the more liberal buzzwords such as “federal jobs guarantee program” and “forgive all student loan debt.”

Kirby Chandler, Vallejo’s campaign manager, asserted her boss’ views haven’t changed. It’s common for candidates to moderate their messages after the primaries to appeal to a broader base, said Patrick Eronini, who served as Hidalgo County Democratic party chair until June.

Vallejo also appears to be the underdog when it comes to money raised. As of the end of June, Vallejo has reported bringing in just under $700,000 — a far cry from the seven-digit figures on her opponent’s side.

It’s a sore spot among the region’s Democrats who don’t want the national party to rest on their laurels in the area, particularly after the party had a weak showing in 2020 due to the pandemic and effectively abandoned the 34th district in this summer’s special election. U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores soundly beat Dan Sanchez after raking in over 16 times as much cash. Tim Persico, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement the organization isn’t taking “any district in South Texas for granted” and mobilized operations in the area earlier than ever before.

De La Cruz and other Republicans are eager to point to Gonzalez’s decision to run in another district as evidence Democrats are fearful of losing the seat.

“In 2020, we showed him and the Democrat Party that we were no longer willing to allow them to take advantage of the Hispanic vote down here, and that we were no longer willing to stand by the radical socialist policies,” De La Cruz told The Texas Tribune. “We did that in 2020 with very little money, but with hundreds of volunteers that were fighting for this district and true representation, and he saw the writing on the wall.”

Gonzalez retorted that “anybody that knows government and understands redistricting knows that my home along with hundreds of thousands of people that I represent now are no longer in that district.” The new 34th district where he is running includes a larger share of Hidalgo County that was previously in CD-15.

Like her opponent, De La Cruz ranks economic concerns and border security as top of her list of priorities. She also campaigns on a personal connection to her district, citing her challenges as a small business owner. It’s a message of perseverance and self-reliance that she says will resonate among the district’s immigrant families who came to the United States legally in pursuit of the American dream.

But De La Cruz can hardly be described as a moderate. She takes a firm stance against abortion, citing her Christian faith, and calls for finishing a border wall with Mexico.

“Our constituents have very strong values when it comes to their faith and believing in God and leading with God first. And so I believe that that's what our constituents want to see here: Someone who’s going to stand for values such as being pro-life,” De La Cruz said in an interview.

Democrats say De La Cruz is too conservative for the district, and Gonzalez argued that the race would be a steeper battle for his party if a more moderate Republican were running.

In fact, all three Republican candidates in South Texas are staunch conservatives that Escobar aligned with far-right members such as U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia. Flores drew criticism for using the #Qanon hashtag, evoking a conspiracy theory that the FBI has deemed a domestic security threat. (Flores denied supporting the conspiracy theory.)

“Monica De La Cruz is a Trump transfer,” Eronini said. “She’s extremely Republican. She’s not your regular Republican.”

De La Cruz, for her part, wears her Trump bonafides with pride and said in an interview that her progress in 2020 with little resources earned her the respect of leading figures across her party’s tent.

De La Cruz also attracted negative attention for her use of federal Covid relief funds only to disparage legislation that would expand those programs as the pandemic raged on. Democrats also raise concerns over her ex-husband’s allegations of abuse toward his daughter, which De La Cruz has firmly denied. De La Cruz’s ex-husband made the allegations during a tumultuous divorce.

Matt Barreto, president and co-founder of BSP Research and a UCLA political science professor, disputed that Latino voters will come out in force for a Republican candidate solely over issues like abortion. Much of the Republican gains in the 15th district are from gerrymandering in very conservative, white rural areas rather than a watershed shift among Latino voters, Barreto said during a press call hosted by America’s Voice.

And though Republicans have made inroads in the community, Barreto said a far larger number of Latino voters participated in the Democratic primary than the Republican primary.

But though the race’s high stakes and fresh faces have drawn considerable national attention on the future of Republican politics among Latino voters, both the candidates push back on framing their races in national terms or comparing their races to other competitive South Texas districts. Each says she is focusing on the distinct needs of the district and zeroing in on the job at hand — winning over her own 760,000 constituents.

“They have unique needs in each district that they better address,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, a Vallejo ally whom the candidate considers a mentor. “Laredo is not Harlingen, and Harlingen is not Brownsville.”

The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.

Recommended Videos