South Texas emerges as political hotbed after Democrats underperformed there in 2020
Democrats will have to defend three seats in the region. And two of those seats could draw heated primary races, too.
South Texas is quickly shaping up to be the epicenter of the state's political universe in 2022, a notable shift after the two major parties spent the last two elections duking it out in the suburbs.
There are ample unknowns, starting with redistricting. But the number of political attractions cropping up in South Texas are becoming numerous, especially after the news Monday that U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, would not seek reelection.
Vela’s seat was already one of three in South Texas that national Republicans, emboldened after former President Donald Trump overperformed across the region last year, were targeting for 2022. Democrats will have to defend those seats, whose districts will first be redrawn in a process controlled by GOP state lawmakers — and likely to favor the party in power.
But before the general election, Democrats will also have to navigate a primary for Vela’s open seat — as well as potentially another serious primary challenge to Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. And the stakes could not be higher nationally: Republicans only need to capture about eight seats to win back the House. Control over that chamber could depend in part on how South Texans vote in 2022.
Recent headlines about the influx of unaccompanied minors at the border have only intensified the GOP’s drive to turn South Texas into a new political background. National Republicans have sought to put their new South Texas targets on the defensive over the “Biden border crisis,” while some of the targets have been more vocal than many of their Democratic colleagues about the extent of the problems unfolding in their districts.
Cuellar has suggested Biden needs to visit the border himself, criticized the administration’s messaging around its more human approach to immigration and leaked photos of a Border Patrol tent in Donna as the administration restricted media access to such facilities. Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez sent Biden a letter requesting a meeting to share how the “current situation on the border is precarious and in need of our immediate attention.”
It is not the only area where the South Texas Democrats have split from their party under Biden — and under new national GOP pressure. Cuellar and Gonzalez were among four Texas Democrats in the House who asked Biden in January to rescind his executive order temporarily halting fracking on federal lands.
The foundation for a South Texas-centered election cycle was laid in November, when Biden underperformed across South Texas in stunning fashion. In 28 counties in South Texas or near the border, he won by a combined 17 percentage points after Hillary Clinton carried them by about double that four years earlier. In the Rio Grande Valley — made up of the four southernmost counties in Texas — Biden won by 15 points after Clinton ran up a 39-point margin there.
The results in some individual counties were even more striking. Zapata County, which sits just north of the Rio Grande Valley along the border, flipped to Trump, who won it by 5 points after Clinton carried it by 33.
“Democrats have a big problem in Texas,” Vela said in a late January interview, shortly after he became vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. “For the first time in generations, or maybe ever, we lost … South Texas counties with significant Hispanic populations. And we are going to have to … wrap our arms around exactly why that happened. It may be a difficult issue to reconcile.”
There have been a number of analyses of what went wrong for Democrats in the region. A state Democratic Party report released last month concluded that Republicans turned out their Latino voters at a higher rate than Democrats did theirs. A December report from Cambio Texas, a progressive group in the Rio Grande Valley, advised Democratic leaders to devise a messaging plan tailored for the area that treats it less like a “progressive region” and more like a “rural conservative county.” And on Wednesday, Nuestro PAC, a national Democratic super PAC that targets Hispanic voters, gave a presentation to reporters that also zeroed in on messaging, saying national Democrats’ approach “does not work in the Valley.”
“We’ve all said Latinos aren’t a monolith, but in the Valley in particular, there’s three major employers,” said the super PAC’s founder, Chuck Rocha. “There’s border security, there’s the local government and there’s oil and gas, and all of those folks don’t line up with the value set that woke brown consultants or woke white consultants in New York or D.C. are selling as a national narrative to these Democrats.”
In the January interview, Vela said he still had to study the trends closer, but sensed that some South Texas voters went with Trump because they were “scared Democrats were gonna take their jobs in the oil and gas industry.” Republicans in Texas raised alarm in October when Biden said in a debate that he would "transition" from the fossil fuel industry that powers much of this state's economy.
If that continues to be the message that voters hear, Vela said, “we’ll continue to lose those voters, so you have to come up with something different.”
“These guys are out busting their ass, leaving their homes for two or three weeks at a time, working night and day, but they’re making upwards of $80,000 a year,” Vela said. “If they don’t do that, they’re back at home looking for a job that’s paying a third. And if you’re telling somebody, ‘We want you to go make $30,000 instead of $80,000,’ you think they’re gonna vote for you?”
Mayra Flores, the first Republican to declare for Vela’s seat in 2022, said the economy is the No. 1 issue for South Texas. No. 2 is law enforcement, she added, arguing voters were turned off by the movement to “defund the police” that cropped up after George Floyd’s death last summer.
“When you have some of these Democrat congress[people] calling [law enforcement officers] names, it’s, ‘Hey, that’s my son, that’s my husband, that’s my daughter, that’s my wife that you’re attacking,’” Flores said. “When it comes to politics, family comes first. That type of message does not resonate in South Texas.”
The term “defund the police” does not mean the same thing to everyone calling for police reforms — and not all supporters of police budget cuts want law enforcement agencies to lose all of their money and be disbanded.
The three districts Republicans are targeting run from north to south as jagged columns from the Rio Grande up to San Antonio and its surrounding areas. The heavy Democratic vote in each seat tends to cluster in the south, while the more rural stretches trend conservative. From west to east is Cuellar’s Texas’ 28th District, Gonzalez’s 15th District and Vela’s 34th District.
For years, this design helped Democrats easily win reelection in each general election. But now Republicans hope to take advantage of this construct. All three districts overlap in mostly inexpensive television markets where Republican groups can easily experiment and maneuver between races with the same advertising buys in the districts’ shared television and radio markets.
Last fall, Cuellar and Vela won by double digits, while Gonzalez had a surprisingly close call with a 3-percentage-point margin. The opportunity for Republicans is in the presidential numbers: Biden carried each of the districts by fewer than 5 points.
So far, Gonzalez has faced the most heat ahead of 2022. His Republican challenger from last year, Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez, is already running again. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee named Gonzalez a “Frontline” member in early March, indicating that they view him as one of the most endangered Democrats in the House. And on Thursday, the NRCC placed him on their 2022 “Exit List” — Democrats who the committee believes could abandon their reelection campaigns — and launched digital and radio ads against him.
The ads attack Gonzalez over recent reporting that for three years he maintained a six-figure bank account with the state-owned Bank of China, urging voters to call Gonzalez and tell him “America’s money doesn’t belong in China.” When national GOP groups began making an issue out of the bank account last month, his office said the account was "American based" and was closed last year.
The head of the Texas Democratic Party, Gilberto Hinojosa, brushed off the idea that Gonzalez was in trouble. In a statement, Hinojosa said that if Republicans are "foolish enough to expend their resources here in a very different race" than the one last year, "they will get what they deserve." Hinojosa also suggested the GOP focus on South Texas "will ultimately help retain and gain other seats in tougher regions.”
Cuellar may be the biggest question mark of the GOP’s three targets in South Texas. He is already one of the most moderate Democrats in Congress, a distinction that earned him a high-profile primary challenge last year. He also has cultivated a powerful in-state ally in Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who expressed coolness Thursday to his party’s push to take out Cuellar.
“Henry Cuellar is my friend and he’s my partner, and it’s one of those rare instances of good bipartisan cooperation that I believe benefit his constituents and my constituents as well,” said Cornyn, who visited Laredo earlier this month to tour the border with Cuellar. “I think he’s certainly well-regarded and I think done a good job, and I think … there are better targets than Congressman Cuellar.”
In Washington, D.C., and Texas, Democrats tend to fall into two camps when looking at South Texas. Some Democrats take the Republican threat incredibly seriously and are urging top-to-bottom engagement.
On the other side of the strategic divide, more confident Democrats argue that the 2020 race was a fluke. In this worldview, GOP South Texas outperformance is rooted in part because Democrats backed off retail politicking amid the COVID-19 pandemic and in part because Trump turned out voters who will not return to the polls when he is not on the ballot.
Either way, it is expected that the House Democratic campaign arm will keep a close eye on the region.
“Republicans’ record of opposing much-needed pandemic relief for working families and small businesses is deeply toxic with South Texas voters,” DCCC spokesperson Chris Hayden said in a statement. “Democrats are committed to meeting voters where they are and aren’t taking any votes for granted this cycle. We know there’s more we can do to effectively communicate our message with voters in communities like South Texas, and we are investing early in the resources needed to reach these voters.”
The DCCC’s Republican counterpart is confident that Biden’s agenda in particular will doom Democrats in South Texas. NRCC spokesperson Torunn Sinclar said in a statement that voters “already see that Biden and House Democrats’ disastrous anti-energy and open borders policies are wreaking havoc across Texas, and that spells big trouble for Texas Democrats in 2022.”
Given the strategic importance, operatives in both parties are eager to game out their strategies to win these seats. But the enthusiasm comes to an abrupt halt at the mere mention of one word: redistricting.
Democrats concede a shared sense of dread as they await a map drawn by the state Legislature. And Republicans have already considered the implications of the Vela retirement in this context as well: A vacant 34th District could give Republicans more freedom with their South Texas redraw.
It is a far more incendiary political move to dramatically redraw the district of an incumbent running for reelection, rather than an open-seat race like the 34th District. This retirement gives them more flexibility to completely dismantle that district.
There are other uncertainties. Operatives in both parties say candidate quality will matter, whether the census will delay the Texas primaries and how much national fundraising will influence these once sleepy races.
“There’s going to be an injection of the unknown that we’ve never seen,” said Moses Mercado, a Washington lobbyist who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley.
He pointed to the locally driven political culture in the Valley, where personalities and family political dynasties have historically carried significant sway with voters. But given the nationalized environment and fundraising networks, these races could become sophisticated and with well-funded television air wars.
At this point, the primary to succeed Vela is expected to be a crowded one. And last year, Cuellar nearly lost his primary to political newcomer Jessica Cisneros. It remains unclear if she will run again, but outside Democratic groups have not ruled out another challenge to Cuellar.
A former longtime Cuellar aide, Colin Strother, discouraged competitive Democratic primaries in South Texas this cycle.
“A lot of our partners, our allies, last cycle spent millions of dollars going after someone that was a safe incumbent, and that was money that could have gone to shore up other races,” Strother said.
“A lot of money was wasted on someone who wasn’t perfect according to some people in the Democratic Party,” he later added.
Democrats also worry about how much Republicans are willing to spend in the region, and if local Democrats, who have long dominated in general election campaigns, are prepared for tough general election fights.
Much remains uncertain, and until the maps are drawn later this year, the future of South Texas politics is theoretical. But Flores, the Republican running for the Vela seat, said there is tangible change in the region.
"People just weren’t any longer ashamed to come out and say, ‘I’m a conservative.’ … Now they say it,” she said. “They’re no longer afraid to stand up for their values.”
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