Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Democrats are suddenly staring down a special election in South Texas, an increasingly competitive region, after U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, revealed Thursday he plans to leave Congress early.
The winner of the special election will get to serve for only a short period, but Republicans are already eyeing the election as an opportunity to show their growing strength in the region.
The National Republican Congressional Committee called Vela’s early exit the latest sign that the national environment is unfavorable for Democrats — and that “South Texas is a top battleground for Republicans.” Democrats scoffed.
“Republicans talk a big game about flipping seats in South Texas, but this is the party that voted against historic infrastructure investments and creating good-paying jobs in the Valley,” Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
Vela already announced he was not seeking reelection in the 34th Congressional District, which stretches from outside San Antonio south to the Rio Grande Valley. He said Thursday he would resign in the coming weeks to work for Akin Gump, a prominent law and lobbying firm.
The special election would be under the boundaries of the previous, more competitive 34th District, which President Joe Biden carried by only 4 percentage points in 2020. The district was redrawn last year to be safer for Democrats and would have had a Biden margin of 16 points. The new boundaries will be used in the November general election, which will determine who serves in the two-year term that begins next year.
Once Vela resigns, state law requires Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special election to fill the seat, but the timing of that depends on multiple factors.
First, Abbott can call a special election for the next uniform election date, as long as his call is at least 36 days out. The next uniform election is May 7, but that is very unlikely to be the special election date. While it is still more than 36 days out from then, federal law requires that military and overseas ballots be sent out 45 days before a federal election — a deadline that was Wednesday.
The next uniform election after that is Nov. 8. But Abbott also has the option of calling what is known as an “emergency special election,” which would allow him to bypass the uniform election dates and schedule the election on any Tuesday or Saturday between 36 and 64 days after he calls it.
Abbott went that route in 2018 after then-U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, left Congress. Rather than wait until November to fill the seat, Abbott invoked the emergency of Hurricane Harvey and scheduled the special election in the coastal district for June 30.
To justify an emergency special election, all Abbott has to do is publicize the "nature of the emergency," according to the election code. He could, for example, cite problems related to illegal immigration as an emergency to fill Vela's seat, which is located on the border.
Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday on his plans for Vela’s seat.
But Republicans were already mobilizing. Mayra Flores, the current Republican nominee for the district in November’s general election, quickly made clear that she was in for the special election.
“Filemon Vela is abandoning us while we have a crisis on our border and families can’t afford groceries and gas because prices are so high,” Flores said in a statement. “I will never abandon our community and will absolutely be a candidate in any special election for Texas’ 34th District.”
The current Democratic nominee for the district in the general election is Vicente Gonzalez, who is the incumbent in the neighboring 15th Congressional District. The McAllen lawmaker decided to switch districts last year after redistricting made the 15th District more competitive for Republicans.
On Thursday, Gonzalez all but closed the door on running in the special election.
“I intend to represent present day TX-15 until the end of my term but will support efforts to find a good Democrat to fill the seat in the interim in the event of a special election,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “I will be on the ballot for TX-34 in November.”
That means Democrats may have to find a fresh face for the unenviable task of running against a nationally supported Republican like Flores — only for the chance to serve for a matter of months, maybe even weeks.
Republicans have been eager to make fresh inroads in South Texas after Biden underperformed throughout the region in 2020. Much of their energy has focused so far on the 15th District, which Biden won by only 2 percentage points. Redistricting turned it into a district that Biden would have lost by 3 percentage points, and the Republican nominee is Monica De La Cruz, who ran against Gonzalez in 2020 and came surprisingly close to beating him.
Robinson, the DCCC spokesperson, took aim at both Flores and De La Cruz in her statement, saying they “will both have to answer for their party’s extreme, obstructionist agenda this fall.”
Even after redistricting, Republicans have been keeping the 34th District on their radar, as well as the 28th Congressional District. That is where U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Democrat from Laredo, is currently in a primary runoff against progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros. There is a GOP primary runoff underway there between Cassy Garcia, former staffer to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, and Sandra Whitten, the 2020 Republican nominee for the seat.