It was a question that befuddled election prognosticators and the media in the Lone Star State: How did then-President Donald Trump gain traction in or outright flip a sizable chunk of the 28 counties3 along the Texas-Mexico border in 2020?
Indeed, two years ago, voters living along Texas’s border shifted rather substantially toward Trump: He won 14 of Texas’s 28 border or South Texas counties — eight of which he flipped from 2016. And while President Biden still carried the region by 17 percentage points, this was about half the margin Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Although Democrats are bullish on bringing these voters back into the fold — or at least preserving their much-reduced advantage — that could prove challenging given that signs look promising for Republicans this year. In June, Republican Mayra Flores defeated Democrat Dan Sanchez in a special election in the state’s 34th District. Additionally, state Republicans have increased their outreach and recruitment efforts in South Texas, and Republicans are largely trusted more on many policy issues — like immigration and the economy — that are top of mind for Latino voters, according to some polls.
But while this year’s elections will offer clues about the durability of Republicans’ gains, the results won’t provide a definitive answer because the electoral environment this year generally favors Republicans. In turn, this might mean narrower margins for Democrats, versus outright losses for the them. The table below shows the three Texas districts in which our Deluxe forecast doesn’t see a clear favorite, and only one is a toss-up.
|15th||EVEN||None||Toss-up||54 in 100|
|28th||D+6||Henry Cuellar D||Likely D||79 in 100|
|34th||D+17||Mayra Flores R
Vincente Gonzalez D
|Lean D||67 in 100|
To be clear, even though redistricting improved Democrats’ chances in two of the districts highlighted above, they’re still on the defensive this year.4 And they have good reason to be: Over the summer, Republicans have outraised their rivals in all three districts, and the Cook Political Report recently moved their election ratings for the 15th and 34th Districts toward the GOP. And as the chart above shows, even our forecast indicates that there’s a decent chance that Republicans will hold or flip one or more of these seats in the next Congress. So how did this region become more competitive, and what does Republicans’ electoral future there look like? Let’s dive in.
Republicans’ best chance for a flip
According to our forecast, Republicans’ best chance of gaining a congressional seat in South Texas is the now-open 15th District — which Trump won by 3 points in 2020 — where Democrat Michelle Vallejo and Republican Monica De La Cruz are neck-and-neck.5
For Republicans, this race is reminiscent of 2020, when De La Cruz came within less than 3 points of unseating Rep. Vicente Gonzalez. This go-around, however, De La Cruz has more leverage. On top of the district getting redrawn to be more Republican-leaning, she has a massive financial edge as of late September, and Vallejo reportedly isn’t getting much support from the national party. (This stands in stark contrast to national Republicans, who have flooded the airwaves with TV ads attacking Vallejo for being too progressive.)
“Because of redistricting, this district was morphed into one that is definitely more conservative, so there is the sense among national Democrats that the 15th is doomed,” said Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “As a result, the sentiment from the national party has been to put money toward other House races where they think Democrats have more of a chance.”
But this race is no slam dunk for De La Cruz. Throughout the year, the Republican attracted a number of negative headlines. And recently, Vallejo released a TV ad calling De La Cruz “too extreme” on abortion. That could hurt her in a district with a voting-age population that is 79 percent Hispanic, according to FiveThirtyEight data, since abortion continues to be an issue Hispanic voters largely support. Of course, the mudslinging has gone both ways, and Republicans’ attacks could land too. National GOP groups are trying to paint Vallejo as a radical. In fact, one spot accused the Democrat of “hosting a border resistance event at her family business,” complete with “anarchist artwork” and calls to “smash ICE,” or the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Beyond the political smears, politics and PAC money, this race will likely come down to which issues voters prioritize. Competitive districts often compel candidates to run toward the middle, but neither seems to be doing that. Vallejo was recruited to run for the seat by a local progressive organization and has campaigned on a platform that included support for policies like “Medicare for All” and a $15 minimum wage. Monica De La Cruz, meanwhile, hasn’t been shy about her anti-abortion views. She also has Trump’s support and has denied, without evidence, the outcome of the 2020 election.
“This race will definitely come down to the issues. Abortion, while not the main issue, is nonetheless motivating younger and more progressive Hispanics to turn up at the polls — which might help Vallejo. On the flip side, De La Cruz will certainly be able to pick up a lot of votes among the more religious and evangelical Christian voters because of her unapologetic anti-abortion stance,” Smith said. “So the question is, which of their candidacies is capturing the pulse more of what the majority voting population down here wants?”
Safer territory for Democrats
Both the 28th and 34th Districts in Texas lean more toward Democrats, so the focus here is mainly about how narrow of a race can Republicans make it, if they don’t win outright. In the race for the 34th, Gonzalez has about a 2-in-3 chance of besting Flores,6 who is running for reelection following her victory in the special election this past June. Gonzalez currently represents the 15th District, but decided to run in the 34th after his old district was made more competitive in redistricting.
What’s working in the Democrat’s favor is that the 34th District is now much safer for Democrats than it was during Flores’s special election. That election was conducted under the old district lines, which had a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean of D+57 — meaning it was 5 points more Democratic than the country as a whole — but the new district has a partisan lean of D+17. And while we have very little polling in this race, an RMG Research/U.S. Term Limits survey conducted July 23-Aug. 1 gave Gonzalez a 4-point edge among likely voters. Also, during the special election, Flores’s Democratic rival was significantly underfunded and got little help from the national party; Gonzalez, though, has a small advantage over Flores when it comes to cash on hand, and he is receiving help from Democrats’ national campaign spending arm.
But this district could also be in play, according to Smith and other forecasters who have assessed the race as a toss-up. Republican groups are getting involved in the race, and a super PAC affiliated with House Republican leadership has worked to paint Gonzalez as out-of-touch with voters. Plus, Gonzalez comes with some baggage, including an incident in July after his campaign paid for advertising on a political blog that used racist language to describe Flores.
Of the three competitive districts this fall, arguably the easiest race for Democrats will be in the 28th District, where longtime Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar has roughly an 8-in-10 chance of beating Republican Cassy Garcia.8 There are many likely explanations for this. First, he’s raised much more money overall than his rival. Also, the 28th District became slightly bluer in redistricting, going from a partisan lean of D+4 to D+7. But what could be helping Cuellar the most is that he’s no longer in the headlines for an FBI raid on his home and campaign office in January — at least compared with how he was around the time of his competitive primary — and subsequent runoff election — this spring. (Cuellar’s attorney has said he is not the target of the investigation.)
Indeed, Cuellar will be a tough Democrat to beat, as evidenced by his roughly 18 years in Congress. His anti-abortion, pro-gun rights views and his tough-on-the-border posture fits well with his culturally conservative seat, as made clear by how he sailed to reelection in 2020, outperforming Biden by 15 points. And his moderate views could also make it harder for Republicans to call him radical. Still, Republicans have a somewhat competitive challenger in Garcia, a former staffer of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In addition to a number of national groups rushing to her defense, Garcia has raised more than $1 million in the third quarter of this year and has outraised Cuellar’s past GOP opponents, according to the Cook Political Report.
Altogether, these three races will likely be the biggest test of Texas Republicans’ durability on the Texas border. But it won’t answer all the questions about how much support they’ve siphoned away from Democrats: For one thing, the electoral environment favors Republicans this year. On top of that, similar economic concerns that benefitted Trump in 2020 still seem to be in play. And immigration is arguably more salient now for South Texans more so than it was two years ago as the number of migrant encounters at the state’s southern border has increased.
The districts are important symbolically as well, and both parties will be watching closely to see what happens. “If Republicans win or come extremely close to winning in any of these districts, I think the party will take it as a sign that their strategy — pouring in money, animating immigration-related issues and so forth — is starting to bear fruit,” Smith said. “In any case, though, I think this region is far more competitive than in the past, and I do think you’re going to see more Republican efforts to make the Lower Rio Grande Valley, if not red, then at least purple going forward.”
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