Democrats already had a South Texas problem — and it’s on the verge of getting worse.
Republicans are well-positioned to flip former Rep. Filemon Vela’s (D-Texas) seat in a special election this summer, a victory that will further reduce Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s already miniscule majority and send a jolt of momentum through the GOP’s bid to turn the entire Rio Grande Valley red in the midterms.
National Republicans have so far pumped in nearly $450,000 on TV to help Mayra Flores become their first representative from the region in decades. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its allies, meanwhile, have stayed out of the contest, preferring to focus on upcoming races in the fall instead.
“I’m very concerned,” said Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who currently represents an adjacent district. “The Republicans are all in and they have invested heavily in the district. And this election will certainly test the commitment of the DCCC to the Rio Grande Valley, to South Texas and to Latino districts in this country.”
“If we don’t keep the seat blue on June 14,” he added, “it will be a tragedy. It really will be a self-inflicted tragedy.”
The special election is two weeks away and will advance the top two candidates to a likely August runoff if no one receives 50 percent of the vote — a probable scenario because two Democrats and two Republicans have filed. The top Democratic candidate for the special is Daniel Sanchez. But thanks to redistricting, Gonzalez will be the nominee for the next full two-year term in the redrawn version of that district.
As the election date creeps closer, House Democrats have found themselves in an increasingly uncomfortable situation complicated both by redistricting and by Vela’s unexpected resignation in April to become a lobbyist.
Democrats can either pour money in to protect a battleground seat that will not exist in January, once redistricting goes into effect — or they risk handing the GOP tangible proof of their ascendancy in the region that they are targeting aggressively in the fall midterms.
“Republicans are dying for a Latino on the border to use as a poster child to falsely spread their right-wing message to our communities,” Gonzalez said. “It would be political malpractice if our party allowed this to happen in a district that has been blue for over a century.”
The special election will be held under the old 34th District lines, which President Joe Biden carried by 4 points. But by the midterms, the new map transforms the district into one Biden carried by nearly 16 points. Flores, a respiratory-care practitioner who is married to a border patrol agent, is running in both the special and for the full two-year term. Democrats have a different candidate in each election.
Gonzalez is not running in the special election but is aiding the campaign of Sanchez, a trial attorney. He and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a leader of the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, hosted a fundraiser for him in D.C. in May.
As the nominee for the more blue-friendly version of the seat in the fall, Gonzalez said he has been pleading with the DCCC to get involved and reduce the spending disparity between the parties.
The DCCC has framed any GOP victory as fleeting. It is focusing much of its mobilizing efforts on the open 15th District nearby, which is the most competitive in the state. The committee hired two full-time staffers and opened a headquarters in that district, as part of its earlier-than-ever organizing effort in Texas.
“A Democrat will represent TX-34 in January. If Republicans spend money on a seat that is out of their reach in November, great,” Monica Robinson, a DCCC spokesperson, said in a statement. “But Mayra Flores is a far-right, MAGA extremist who is completely out of touch with South Texans. The DCCC is focused on winning seats in November and we are committed to ensuring Hispanic voters get the representation they deserve when Vicente Gonzalez is elected to a full term this fall.”
So far, the National Republican Congressional Committee has made a joint TV ad buy with the Flores campaign of about $270,000. And this week the Congressional Leadership Fund, the main super PAC for House Republicans, launched a TV and digital ad buy worth $200,000 to help her. The Flores campaign has spent over $520,000 on TV ads of its own, according to the media tracking firm AdImpact.
“Mayra Flores is an exceptional candidate that embodies the spirit of the Rio Grande Valley,” CLF president Dan Conston said in a statement. “We have the opportunity to introduce her to voters and begin telling her story now, which we believe has truly unique appeal in this district.”
Sanchez, meanwhile, has aired no ads, and he launched his campaign in early April. Flores has been running for months. Vela first announced in March 2021 that he would retire after this term and he later resigned and triggered the special election.
In a video of a recent Sanchez campaign event obtained by POLITICO, the candidate candidly expressed concern about the fundraising and TV disparity between himself and Flores.
“We don’t have that kind of money to spend,” Sanchez said after listing off the Republican investments.
“Think about what happens if Mayra loses against an unknown guy who did no media TV ads,” Sanchez continued, noting that he had compressed time to campaign. “There’s no way she’ll beat Vicente. But if she wins, what’s going to happen? She’s going to be in DC, raising all kinds of crazy money.”
Operatives from both parties believe it will be hard to avoid an August runoff. That means Democrats still have time to boost Sanchez then or even make a last-minute bid to aid him in the final weeks before June 14.
But Democrats have a lot of battleground seats to defend in November, and using precious funds on a district that will change drastically in just a few months is an unattractive prospect — even if a GOP win would create a distracting narrative and give Flores an outside shot at keeping the district when it becomes more difficult.
“I am grateful for the tremendous help our campaign has received from Republicans across Texas and the nation,” Flores said in a statement. “The feedback we receive every day on the campaign trail confirms that South Texans share our conservative values.”
Republicans have been surging in the region and believe border security is a winning issue that animates both base voters and independents. The three districts in the Rio Grande Valley took a sharp turn to the right in 2020. Biden won them by single digits, falling from the double digit margins enjoyed there by previous Democratic presidential candidates.
Republicans are targeting the other two districts in November, behind Cassy Garcia, the GOP nominee running for Rep. Henry Cuellar’s (D-Texas) seat, and Monica De La Cruz, who is running for an open seat.
“The people here in South Texas, in my entire district, everyone is following this election,” De La Cruz said. “It will show the strength of the Republican movement that’s happening here.”
Flores, Garcia and De La Cruz have formed an alliance and plan to host joint rallies to highlight their similar platforms. De La Cruz spent Tuesday canvassing and appearing at a rally for Flores.
“I think that just goes to show the Democrat Party just doesn’t care. They don’t care about the Hispanics down here,” she said of national Democrats’ lack of investment.
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