Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
BROWNSVILLE — Texas Republicans are brimming with optimism ahead of Election Day over their ability to deliver historic wins in the Democratic stronghold of South Texas by flipping three key congressional races.
And South Texas Democrats are on a war footing.
“They’re trying to buy elections in South Texas with money from outside of here, spending extraordinary amounts of money to try to turn things,” U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, told supporters Tuesday in Brownsville, painting the Rio Grande Valley as under siege from big donors in places like Alabama and Mississippi.
“They’re trying to turn us, but we’re gonna turn them,” Gonzalez added as cheers grew louder. “If we whoop their ass this time, they’ll never come back!”
With less than a week until the Nov. 8 election, long gone is any Democratic dismissiveness on whether their districts in South Texas are up for grabs. Gonzalez and longtime congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, are fighting for their political lives, and in a third neighboring congressional district, Democrat Michelle Vallejo is running an underdog campaign to keep the open seat blue.
In the past few weeks, Democratic footing in these battleground races has only grown more uncertain: Multiple forecasters have declared the seats that previously leaned toward Democrats a toss-up. A wave of national and statewide polls show Republican strength and increasing voter concern on conservative issues such as border security and the economy. And national Republicans have seized the opportunity, pouring eight-figure sums into their candidates.
Republicans are certain they will win at least one of the South Texas congressional races — they’ve exhibited the most confidence in Monica De La Cruz’s race against Vallejo since the Legislature redrew the district to be one that former President Donald Trump would have carried by 3 percentage points. (He lost the old version by 2 points.)
But some Republicans are now openly speculating they’ll win all three. Dave Carney, Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief strategist, recently said Abbott’s campaign feels “spectacularly positive” about South Texas and that all three contests are “within victory.” In a signal of his commitment to the region, Abbott is hosting his election night watch party in McAllen.
“I expect to win” all three, Tom Emmer, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a recent interview. “I absolutely do.”
Such a sweep would be a political earthquake in South Texas, likely leading to the GOP representing every part of the Texas-Mexico border except El Paso.
And while Republicans have poured cash into the region to try to win the three seats, Democrats have also spent big to defend Gonzalez and Cuellar, drawn into costly battles in districts that were actually made bluer in redistricting. Their districts would have gone for President Joe Biden by 16 and 7 percentage points, respectively.
It is a new experience for South Texas and the four-county area at the bottom of it known as the Rio Grande Valley. Long dominated by Democrats, the predominantly Hispanic region has been unusually inundated for a November election.
“I see a lot of ads,” Vickie Pardo, a 70-year-old retired teacher, said after early voting Wednesday in McAllen, waving her hand in exasperation. “It’s like, ‘Shut it off.’”
Over in Brownsville, streets big and small are lined with Gonzalez’s signs, which say “Vicente con la gente,” or Vicente with the people. Just as ubiquitous are those of his Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores of Los Indios, which tout her slogan of “dios, familia, patria” — God, family and country.
While Republicans have long touted the races as referenda on border policy under Biden, the contests are also ending on more personal terms as the GOP paints Cuellar and Gonzalez as dirty politicians with ties to Mexican drug cartels. Democrats have taken more divergent approaches to their two Republican rivals, assailing Cassy Garcia as a threat to health care and the social safety net and Flores as an extremist on abortion, guns and the 2020 election.
The state’s No. 1 Democrat, gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke, did not express any concern about the South Texas races while campaigning with Gonzalez on Tuesday in Brownsville. O’Rourke said he was “really encouraged by the local leadership I see.”
The 34th District would be the sweetest victory for Republicans. Not only did redistricting make it the bluest of the three districts, but it also added more Hispanic eligible voters. Flores captured the seat in a June special election, but the boundaries of the district then were more favorable to Republicans. Democrats dismissed the idea she could hold on to it in the fall with the new map in place.
But now national prognosticators call the race a toss-up, and Republicans are exuberant.
“Mayra’s become a movement more than a member, and she’s going to win again,” Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, said on a recent podcast.
Gonzalez is the incumbent in the 15th District but decided to seek reelection in the 34th District due to redistricting. The new 34th District goes from Brownsville over to McAllen and up the coast to outside Corpus Christi.
On paper, the district appears to have far more Democrats than Republicans, especially after redistricting. But Flores is hoping to scramble that math with her appeals to voters similar to herself: Latinos who long voted Democratic out of tradition but who now question whether the party truly represents them.
That was apparent as Flores campaigned Tuesday throughout the district with Tulsi Gabbard, the former Hawaii congresswoman and presidential candidate who recently left the Democratic Party.
“There are a lot of people who maybe feel like I feel,” Gabbard said, addressing a crowd of about 100 people at a food truck park. “There are a lot of people who may have been Democrats for a long time — they maybe never voted for a Republican, and they’re not quite sure if they’re comfortable.”
Speaking before Gabbard, Flores said South Texans have “been loyal to a party that’s taken advantage of them, of their good heart.”
After the Gabbard rally, one Flores supporter, Victor Vasquez, said he did not know much about Gonzalez.
“I just know the direction we’re headed in — it’s not good,” said Vasquez, a 53-year-old ICU nurse from Brownsville. “It’s really hit our pocketbook.”
Republican operatives say Gonzalez’s favorability rating has taken a beating after over a month of ads centered on a 2006 case in which he defended a man who was convicted of illegally transporting undocumented migrants across state lines. Rather than fully attacking Flores, House Majority PAC — the top Democratic super PAC in congressional races — has spent the closing days of the contest airing TV ads that also seek to shore up Gonzalez’s image.
Gonzalez pushed back the hardest yet this week, releasing a TV ad in which his wife denounces the attack ads and says that as a lawyer, “he represented our gente” — the Spanish word for people — “not criminals.” And on Tuesday, Gonzalez voluntarily released a statement seeking to debunk multiple attack lines that have aired against him.
Republican operatives have lately portrayed Gonzalez as an arrogant creature of Washington who is only now realizing he needs to put in the leg work to win the seat. But Gonzalez’s allies say that, for all his errors in this race, failing to anticipate the challenge is not one of them.
Jose Borjon, a former chief of staff for Gonzalez who advises on the campaign, recalled a phone call with the congressman three months ago in which Gonzalez said, “this race was going to be extremely serious, extremely expensive.” Gonzalez has always been an aggressive campaigner, even in far less competitive races, Borjon said, though he has never faced a challenge quite as steep as this cycle since his first election in 2016.
Ben Whitman, vice chair of the Northern Cameron County Democrats, said Flores’ campaign has been “very persistent” in its ground game, repeatedly knocking on doors of voters who are considered strong Democrats. He did not think Flores’ campaign was changing any minds, but he said the campaign’s “fervor” has been striking.
“They’re really not giving up on anyone trying to persuade them,” Whitman said.
Cuellar remains the most wily target for the GOP in the three congressional races. A well-established incumbent — he has been in Congress since 2005 — Cuellar is campaigning on the bipartisan record that made him an antagonist of fellow Democrats in his hotly contested primary.
“This is a unique race,” said Stanley “Stosh” Boyle, the mayor of Cibolo in suburban San Antonio and a Cuellar supporter. “This really doesn’t have anything to do with Democratic, Republican.”
Republicans have spent weeks attacking Cuellar as corrupt, including by raising questions about the FBI raid of his Laredo home in January. The FBI still has not said what it was investigating, but Cuellar has denied any wrongdoing.
The GOP efforts to paint Cuellar as dirty reached a crescendo this week with a TV ad linking him to Mexican drug cartels.
The commercial from the National Republican Congressional Committee cites a 2006 campaign contribution that Cuellar got from the wife of a San Antonio man later accused of money laundering for the cartels. Cuellar’s campaign said they had donated the contribution to charity after learning the man’s brother had been killed in Mexico in a cartel-connected slaying.
Cuellar responded swiftly and fiercely to the ad.
“In Spanish, there is a saying, ‘patadas de ahogado,’” Cuellar said in a statement. “And that is exactly what this is, a desperate and futile attempt to influence this race with lies.”
Since the ad came out, Cuellar and Garcia have gone to war against one another on Twitter, with Garcia at one point labeling the congressman “Henry Cuellar (D-Narcos).”
On the other side, Garcia has faced a raft of commercials blasting her for comments opposing Obamacare that she made in 2013 and 2014, when she was a staffer for Sen. Ted Cruz, including tweets calling for its full repeal. On Wednesday, she issued a statement distancing herself from that posture, saying she wants to “focus on making the [Affordable Care Act] work better for families in South Texas.”
Throughout the race, Republicans have had to contend with Cuellar’s bipartisan image, but they have found a reliable attack in his closeness to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“With all due respect to [Garcia’s] opponent, who is a friend — I like Henry … she will not be voting for Nancy Pelosi for speaker,” U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-San Antonio, said at a Garcia rally last month in the district that Emmer, the NRCC chair, headlined.
Cuellar, a political fixture in Laredo, has been particularly focused on the San Antonio end of his district. He got blown out there in his primary, acknowledging afterward that he needed to reach out more to the area, and Garcia has based her campaign in Schertz, a northern San Antonio suburb.
Jesus Toro Martinez is a San Antonio activist who supported Cuellar’s primary challenger, Jessica Cisneros, but now calls himself a “strong Cuellar supporter.”
“People that were Democrats that did not vote for him [in the primary] are coming out to vote for him,” Martinez said Wednesday while knocking doors for Cuellar, adding that the ”most convincing argument” is maintaining Cuellar’s seniority in Congress. “A ‘no’ vote for Cuellar means no progress in this congressional district. We would start all over again from the beginning.”
In the 15th Congressional District, which stretches from the eastern exurbs of San Antonio down to the Mexican border in McAllen, Vallejo is largely going at it alone. As a nonincumbent in a district leaning slightly toward Republicans, the progressive newcomer was much further down the priority list for national Democratic operatives trying to protect current members. The DCCC and House Majority PAC opted against spending to air TV ads in the district, much to the ire of state Democrats.
Vallejo’s allies say the news gave the race new purpose.
“People just got really pissed off about it and they said, ‘You know what, you don't want to give us some money? That’s fine. We’re going to show you we can do it without you,’” said Richard Gonzales, chair of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party.
The DCCC has contested that it abandoned the race, arguing it has invested early in the race in a ground office in the region and has run digital and radio ads for Vallejo.
Vallejo’s team stresses there is reason to hope. Democratic polling released late last month found Vallejo and De La Cruz tied, and Vallejo narrowly outraised De La Cruz on their final major campaign-finance report.
National Democrats have not entirely given up on the race in the homestretch. House Majority PAC has sent out at least one mailer in the final days, attacking De La Cruz for opposing abortion in cases of rape and incest.
Democratic candidate for Texas’ 15th Congressional District Michelle Vallejo at a polling location in McAllen on Wednesday.
Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune
Vallejo has leaned in to abortion rights more than Cuellar and Gonzalez, who are more moderate on the issue. She and other South Texas progressives have set out to disprove the idea that Hispanic voters are reluctant because of their Catholic faith to back a candidate who supports abortion rights.
They have common cause with voters like Diana Bellmore, who was among the voters Vallejo greeted Wednesday morning outside a McAllen polling location.
“I don’t believe in abortion, but I don’t believe in taking away our right to choose,” said Bellmore, a 69-year-old retired nurse from Pharr.
She also identified gun violence as a top issue, noting she owns hunting rifles but does not believe anyone needs an AR-15 to, for example, kill a deer.
Another Vallejo voter, Donna Szegeski, a 70-year-old retiree from McAllen, said she liked the candidate due to her local roots and the youthful “energy” she has brought to the race. Pardo, the retired teacher, said she thought Vallejo could win if enough people vote, but she expressed concern about apathy among Hispanic Texans who do not believe their vote matters.
To Republicans, meanwhile, a historic moment is within reach.
“I think right now, the whole Valley has changed,” said Julio Graña, a 36-year-old Brownsville business owner who attended the Flores rally and, like her, is a Mexican immigrant. “I think the Republican Party, the conservatives, have woken up.”
Disclosure: Common Cause has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Texans need truth. Help us report it.
Independent Texas reporting needs your support. The Texas Tribune delivers fact-based journalism for Texans, by Texans — and our community of members, the readers who donate, make our work possible. Help us bring you and millions of others in-depth news and information. Will you support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation of any amount?