No red wave, but Republicans continue inroads into long-Democratic South Texas

Supporters of Monica De La Cruz hold a campaign banner outside the Lark Community Center in McAllen on Tuesday. (Jason Garza For The Texas Tribune, Jason Garza For The Texas Tribune)

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McALLEN — Democrats minimized their losses Tuesday in South Texas despite an unprecedented Republican offensive in the long-blue region. But gone are the days of unquestioned Democratic control there.

South Texas weathered some of its most competitive races yet this cycle, with millions of dollars pouring in from around the state and country. In the end, Republicans managed to flip only one of three congressional seats they targeted, winning what was widely seen as the most gettable one. The party also gained one Texas House district in the region — and held on to two others that Democrats had traditionally controlled.

Those gains were helped by redistricting, but they still give the GOP a new foothold in the region as it looks to future elections.

“Success isn’t always winning every single race,” said Dave Carney, Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief strategist, who was among the Republicans who floated a possible sweep in the three congressional races. “It’s showing in hundreds of races that we actually have a race.”

Republicans planted their flag in South Texas in hopes of peeling off Hispanic voters who have traditionally leaned Democratic. The GOP believed a record number of migrants apprehended along the Texas-Mexico border, combined with economic concerns as inflation persists, would serve as an accelerant for Republican progress in the region.

But Abbott did not meet his goal of winning a majority with Hispanic voters statewide, according to one exit poll that showed he garnered 40% of their support. Carney said the campaign was “still calculating actual vote, which will take a little bit of time” as voter data becomes available in the coming days.

And Democrats were quick to downplay the GOP gains in South Texas, arguing they were made possible by the Republican-controlled redistricting process last year. Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said it was “complete bullshit” to conclude Republicans’ 15th Congressional District victory meant they were winning new support among Hispanic voters, saying it was redrawn to be “less Hispanic and more white.”

“There was no red wave in South Texas,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “There wasn’t even a red ripple.”

The district boundaries changed this year from an area that President Joe Biden carried by 1.9 points to one that former President Donald Trump would have won by 2.8 points. District voters were 74% Hispanic both before and after redistricting.

Republicans said their candidates outperformed the partisan makeup of the new legislative and congressional districts. For example, Republican Janie Lopez won Texas House District 37 by 4 points, a 6-point swing from how Biden would have performed there in 2020 if the new political boundaries were in place.

“If Democrats think these wins are based on redistricting and political whim, they can continue to take voters for granted and watch Republicans to win,” said Aaron De Leon, vice president of the Associated Republicans of Texas, which was a major player in state legislative races in South Texas.

While Republicans may not have conjured a red wave this year, they didn’t lose ground at the top of the ticket in the Rio Grande Valley, the closely watched four-county area at the bottom of South Texas. Abbott’s deficit matched that of Trump, who also lost by 15 points in the Rio Grande Valley in 2020. Four years ago, Democrat Beto O’Rourke carried the counties by more than double that — 35 points — in an unsuccessful U.S. Senate run. And in 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the Valley by 39 points.

ProjectRedTX said Wednesday it helped Republicans win at least 43 county-level seats in South Texas, creating a new “farm team” for the region.

And in congressional races, Democrats’ margins of victory shrank. Although Democratic U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez won in the 34th Congressional District against fellow incumbent Rep. Mayra Flores, a Republican, his 8-point victory was far less than what Democrats pulled off in past cycles. Had the new political maps used in Tuesday’s election been in place two years ago, Biden would have won the district by 15.5 points. Gonzalez won Cameron County, the most populous part of the district, by 3.55 points. Four years ago, Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela won the county by roughly 30 points.

Democrats argue redistricting made it harder to win the 15th Congressional District by adding more conservative areas to the north. But even in the Democratic stronghold of Hidalgo County, Republican candidate Monica De La Cruz got more of the vote than in 2020. She lost the county by 12.6 points on Tuesday. Last cycle, she lost by over 20 points. De La Cruz wound up winning the district overall.

Jose Borjon, a former chief of staff for Gonzalez who advised him on this year’s campaign, acknowledged that “we saw that there’s definitely some people that have gravitated to the Republican Party,” though he highlighted that the counties along the Texas-Mexico border remained solidly Democratic.

In the 28th Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar secured a 10th term. He was the most seasoned of the GOP targets, a fixture in Laredo who has seen political battle before. But this cycle was the biggest stress test for him yet: The FBI raided his home in January, weeks before a rematch with progressive primary challenger Jessica Cisneros, and then they went to a runoff when the leak of the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade cast a harsh spotlight on his record as an anti-abortion Democrat.

Democrats like Cuellar and Gonzalez had hoped that their victories would be decisive enough to send Republicans packing from South Texas. But the GOP vowed Wednesday to keep aggressively contesting the region.

Flores, the Republican whom Gonzalez beat, captured the 34th District in a June special election that attracted national attention. But that was under the district's previous, more competitive boundaries, and Democrats opted not to seriously invest in the race under the assumption she would be effectively renting the seat until November.

After lamenting Tuesday night that a “red wave” had not come to fruition, Flores was already looking forward to the next election Wednesday morning, simply tweeting “2024.”

Matt Rinaldi, chair of the state GOP, said in a tweet that redrawing the 34th District to be so heavily Democratic “was an absolute waste of Flores’ talent & [Texas] House leadership made a bad call in giving her the short straw in redistricting.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said its $7 million investments in South Texas showed that “when we make meaningful investments in the Rio Grande Valley, voters choose Democrats.” Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee argued that the millions of dollars the Democrats spent on seats Biden carried demonstrated they “will remain competitive.”

Cuellar spent much of the cycle criticizing his party for not taking the border seriously enough, earning him regular appearances on Fox News. In the weeks before the election, he appeared multiple times on the Republican-friendly network with a neighboring GOP congressman, Tony Gonzales.

In Texas Senate District 27, Republican Adam Hinojosa was within 600 votes of Democrat Morgan LaMantia on Wednesday in an open seat that redistricting made more competitive for the GOP, bringing the Biden margin down to 6 points. It was a seat that some top Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, had hesitated to push hard for until recent weeks, when Patrick reeled in a Trump endorsement for Hinojosa.

Hinojosa issued a statement Wednesday evening in which he said he was still waiting to see final ballots counted.

There was another too-close-to-call race for District 2 on the State Board of Education, which covers most of the Valley and goes up through Corpus Christi toward Houston. The Republican LJ Francis, was leading by less than half a percentage point and declared victory, while the Democrat, Victor Perez, said he was waiting to see the final tally. Trump would have carried the district by 4 points in 2020, but it was redrawn to be evenly divided in the presidential vote split.

Republicans also mounted serious campaigns against two state House Democrats in South Texas, state Reps. Abel Herrero of Robstown and Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass. Both won by double digits.

The GOP’s biggest defensive victory came on the South Side of San Antonio, where state Rep. John Lujan won reelection by 4 points after flipping the seat in a special election last year that Democrats claimed would be a fluke. He won the special election when it was a district that Biden carried by 14 points; the redrawn district would have gone for Biden by just 3.

De La Cruz, the Republican who was victorious in the 15th Congressional District, was quick to point out Tuesday that her win was years in the making. She first broke onto the stage in the 2020 election, when she came within 3 percentage points of beating Gonzalez, who was then running in the district, despite having less than half his campaign cash. De La Cruz’s close run inspired Flores and Cassy Garcia, Cuellar’s Republican opponent, to run this cycle.

“It’s been three years of hard work of educating voters in this area, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds not only for Texas 15 but for 28 and 34,” De La Cruz said in a brief interview during her election night party.

LUPE Votes, a progressive organizing group based in the Valley, also sees continued competition ahead. Its political director, Danny Diaz, said in a statement that the “Valley should be respected, and we expect it to be a political battleground for years to come.”

Borjon, who advised Gonzalez, said national Democrats will need to do some soul searching to understand the kind of party candidate needed in South Texas, acknowledging how Republicans heavily tapped into South Texas voters’ social conservatism. Borjon said more “progressive wings” of the party pushed policies that could have alienated voters on immigration, policing and government spending.

Dan Sanchez, the Democrat who lost to Flores in the 34th Congressional District’s special election, said the national party will need to continue spending more money to fight off Republicans in South Texas.

“Have [national Democrats] spent enough? If you call a win enough, yes. But do they need to spend more? Absolutely,” he said of Gonzalez. “Because in two years, he’s got to do it all over again. And so we don’t know if we’re gonna have someone like Mayra or someone that’s, you know, maybe a little further out there.”

Stephen Neukam contributed reporting.

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