National Democrats will invest to retake South Texas congressional district in 2024

U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-Edinburg. (Verónica G. Cárdenas For The Texas Tribune, Verónica G. Cárdenas For The Texas Tribune)

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WASHINGTON — Democrats want South Texas back.

The U.S. House Democratic campaign arm plans to dump funds into Texas’ 15th congressional district this election cycle in a bid to reclaim the most competitive seat in the state, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will announce Monday. The seat had long been a Democratic stronghold until U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-Edinburg, won the district in last year’s midterm election. The race saw a Republican spending frenzy and was a critical win for the party, which has been eager to make inroads with the district’s majority Latino population.

The strategy is a shift from last year, when national party groups essentially abandoned the district to the fury of local and state Democrats. Groups like the DCCC asserted they needed to prioritize limited resources to defend incumbents also in competitive races, including Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, who switched districts out of the 15th to the neighboring 34th last year.

The district snakes from the eastern exurbs of San Antonio down to McAllen on the Mexican border.

The loss of the 15th district was a bitter pill for Democrats to swallow. It was the first time in the district’s history a Republican won the seat and lent ballast to Republican claims that their message resonated with the culturally conservative Hispanic voters of the region.

Democrats were still able to hold off Republicans from netting any new seats in South Texas, and Democrats asserted they only lost the 15th district because its boundaries were redrawn in the 2021 redistricting to include more conservative areas north of its population core in McAllen. But Republicans managed to close margins in the traditionally Democratic areas of Hidalgo County, indicating the days of Democrats sitting pretty in the region might be over.

In announcing plans to challenge the seat, the DCCC said De La Cruz prioritized national party politics over her district.

“De La Cruz is a MAGA extremist who is less concerned with the needs of the community she represents and more committed to advancing an extreme Republican agenda filled with partisan investigations, GOP messaging bills, and rolling back reproductive freedoms nationwide,” said DCCC spokesperson Tommy Garcia. “The DCCC will work to ensure Texas voters have a clear choice in 2024.”

De La Cruz ran touting an endorsement by President Donald Trump and with a message of securing the border and unmuzzling domestic oil and gas production. She won her race by over 9 percentage points, and has since become a leading voice among Republican freshmen in Congress on border issues — one of the party’s marquee priorities and attack points against Democrats.

De La Cruz was a Republican pioneer in the region. She had challenged Gonzalez in the 2020 election with considerably less cash and practically no national support or name recognition, yet came within 3 percentage points from unseating the experienced and handsomely funded Democrat. National Republican groups subsequently poured money into the region, leading to Republican Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, winning the 34th congressional district in a summer special election in 2022 and De La Cruz winning in the 15th district that November.

“After just three months in office, Congresswoman Monica De La Cruz has proven herself to be a strong leader who is already delivering results for her community. Meanwhile, Democrats are delivering extreme soft-on-crime policies, an inflated economy and a porous southern border, and in 2024, TX-15 and TX-34 will reject radical Democrat policies,” NRCC Spokeswoman Delanie Bomar said in a statement.

Flores, who later lost her seat to Gonzalez in November, cited De La Cruz’s 2020 run as inspiration for her own bid in 2022, as did Republican Cassy Garcia, who ran in the neighboring 28th district against long-time Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar. The three Latina Republican women branded themselves the “Triple Threat” and the “Trio Grande Valley,” doing media appearances together to tout the potential for Republican Hispanic candidates.

De La Cruz raised just under $4.7 million last year. She eclipsed her Democratic rival Michelle Vallejo, a fellow political novice and progressive candidate with family roots in the region. Vallejo raised over $2.3 million — still a handsome sum relative to past races in the district but not nearly enough to win.

Republicans are also trying to continue their inroads in South Texas next year. The National Republican Congressional Committee announced last month it was putting money into ousting Gonzalez in the 34th district.

Democrats were quick to deride that move as a waste of Republicans’ time and money. Gonzalez won his race with just over 8 percentage points, and his district leans comfortably Democratic, having voted for President Joe Biden with a 16-point margin.

“We welcome the Republican Party to squander more resources in South Texas allowing us to grow our majority around the country,” Gonzalez’s campaign said in a statement to the Tribune shortly after the NRCC’s announcement.

Still, Gonzalez admitted that last year was his most challenging campaign since first being elected to Congress. He spent over $4.2 million on the race, and finished with over $300,000 still in the bank for future challenges.

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