Republicans Flip South Texas Congressional District in Special Election
BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Republicans picked up a key victory in the special election for Texas’s 34th Congressional District when Hidalgo County GOP Hispanic Outreach Chair Mayra Flores beat Democratic Cameron County Commissioner Dan Sanchez and two other candidates on Tuesday.
Flores will serve the remainder of former Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela’s term, which expires in January. Vela resigned from Congress in April to accept a position at the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld after previously announcing he would not seek reelection.
Texas’ 34th currently extends from east of San Antonio and stretches all the way into Brownsville, but it will look different once its post-2020 redistricting borders take effect. At that point, the district will be significantly smaller as it will only extend from Kingsville, south of Corpus Christi, to the southern border with Matamoros, Mexico.
Flores avoided an August runoff by surpassing the 50% vote threshold, edging out Sanchez by 2,220 votes, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s unofficial contest results. The district represents a deeply Hispanic swath of south Texas that Vela had represented since 2013, indicating that Republicans have made strong inroads with voters in those areas ahead of the 2022 midterms.
In her election night victory speech in San Benito, Flores said that Democrats had taken Latino voters for granted in the region “for over 100 years” and criticized the policies of President Joe Biden.
“Policies are being placed right now that are hurting us,” she said to her supporters on election night. “We cannot accept the increase of gas, of food, of medication — we cannot accept that. And we have to say the facts, that under [former] President [Donald] Trump we did not have this mess in this country.”
Flores significantly outraised her chief opponent, notching over $1 million in total contributions compared to Sanchez, who raised just over $46,000 in total contributions, according to Federal Election Commission data. Flores received $10,000 in party committee contributions and $242,350 in other committee contributions while Sanchez received $14,800 in other committee contributions and no money from party committee contributions.
The district ranks second nationwide in percentage of Latino voters out of 433 districts with available data, according to American Public Media Research Lab. Roughly 79% of potential voters in the district identify as Latino, putting Democrats in the unusual position of underdog in the district that was once safely blue.
Flipping Filemon’s seat red is just the latest instance of a worrying trend for Democrats who seek to maintain their narrow House majority after November. With Flores’ victory, Republicans need only to flip a net of four House seats to retake the majority they lost in 2018.
Flores is a notably unusual candidate for the Republican Party. Born and raised in Burgos Tamaulipas, Mexico, she became a naturalized U.S. citizen after immigrating at six years old, eventually becoming a respiratory care practitioner before turning her attention to politics, according to her campaign website.
Immigration has become a winning issue for Republicans in border communities among Latino voters who have grown weary of Democrats’ mixed messaging on the issue, Matthew Wilson, associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, told The Well News. In regions that routinely feel the harsh effects of lax border policy, the Republican position on immigration is gaining popularity.
“I do think, generally speaking, Republicans are more effective [on immigration] and it’s because they have a clearer and more unified sense of what they want to say,” Wilson said. “The Republican position is pretty uniformly one of emphasizing and strengthening border security, bringing order to the southern border, combating some of the chaos in terms of illegal immigration, drug trafficking [and] human trafficking that’s coming across the border.”
In contrast, Democrats are finding themselves behind the eight ball on border policy. While centrists like Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have voiced support for enhancing border patrol operations and retaining Title 42, these ideas are less popular among progressive Democrats and contribute to the party’s lack of uniformity.
“On the Democratic side, there’s not a real coherent sense right now of what the party wants to say about immigration,” Wilson told The Well News. “Do they want to call for stronger control measures? Do they want to call for a more liberalized immigration policy? I think right now, there are more divisions within the Democratic Party than within the Republican Party on this issue — and that affects the quality and clarity of the messaging.”
The Texas Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shrugged off Sanchez’s defeat as they shifted focus to the November general election, when Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, who currently represents Texas’s 15th Congressional District, will look to replace Flores.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa wrote off the “disappointing” special election result as one that came from Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to call it at a time specifically chosen to give Republicans an advantage. In a written statement, Hinojosa said that Flores “barely squeak[ed] out a win” and Republicans “purchased” the seat with “far-right dark money.”
“MAGA Republican Mayra Flores shouldn’t get too comfortable — she’ll barely have enough time to set up her desk before south Texans send her packing again,” DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney said in a written statement. “It’s all eyes on November as we gear up to send Vicente Gonzalez back to Congress this fall.”
Election forecasters with Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball predict that the redrawn district will favor Gonzales in November, respectively rating the matchup as “Solid Democratic” and “Likely Democratic” in their June updates. Meanwhile, pollsters with the Cook Political Report rated the matchup only slightly in favor of Democrats after previously rating it a toss-up.
Republican Party officials heralded Flores’ victory as a sign of things to come and evidence that Republicans now have a winning message with Hispanic voters in a National Republican Congressional Committee release. The NRCC conducted district-wide polling in April that indicated Vela’s resignation was an opportunity for them to strike.
Flores led Sanchez by 5 percentage points in a sample ballot produced by the committee that contained all four candidates, although that survey showed that 41% of voters were undecided. Further, the NRCC and Texas GOP also directed $1.1 million in paid voter contact efforts into her campaign, with the Texas Republican Party contributing $500,000 to produce mailers in both English and Spanish.
Thirty-four percent of voters indicated in the NRCC survey that border security and immigration were the foremost issues on their minds, while 17% of voters said economic issues like taxes, inflation and jobs were the most important issues to them. LIBRE Initiative Action spokesperson Israel Ortega told The Well News that rhetoric alone is no longer enough to win over voters in south Texas.
“For years, I think we’ve been seeing that the Hispanic community is definitely paying a lot more attention to not just what politicians say, but what they’re actually doing,” Ortega said. “And I think, particularly on issues where south Texans feel like their livelihood is at stake, you’re starting to see them be a lot more responsive and questioning how those policies are going to impact their daily lives and their ability to provide for their families.”
Democratic initiatives like climate change policies have begun to turn voters away in the fear that well-paying oil and gas sector jobs could be affected, and their communities bear the brunt of inaction on meaningful immigration reform. Specifically, Ortega said, voters are looking to Washington to deliver solutions that address those concerns and produce observable differences in their daily lives. Voters, in this case, may be dissuaded by policies they believe are driving inflation and encouraging unlawful migration into the country.
Flores’ willingness to call out Washington on its federal spending is likely to have won over some independent voters and third-party leaners in the district, he said. Consequently, Flores’ path to victory on Tuesday could serve as a blueprint for either party to find success on the campaign trail.
“It’s a combination of different things that people want to see enacted,” Ortega told The Well News. “When we talk about enhanced border security, it doesn’t always mean erecting a wall. It could also [entail using] smarter technology. So I think that that’s a message that resonates with south Texans. It’s a combination of a lot of things, but I do think that overall the status quo is unsustainable.”
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