By Susan Ferrechio
IRVING, Texas — South Texas has never elected a Republican to serve in the U.S. House, but the party’s losing streak may end in November.
Republicans have a shot at winning up to three seats in South Texas, where Democrats have been losing ground with Hispanic voters for the past two election cycles and President Biden’s low approval ratings, coupled with a surge in illegal border crossings, are hurting the party’s midterm prospects.
Three Hispanic candidates are poised to challenge Democratic incumbents. Their chances are bolstered by a trend showing voters in South Texas shifting toward the Republican Party. The trend is expected to accelerate under the Biden administration.
“South Texas is a top battleground for House Republicans,” said Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans. “Hispanic voters are leaving the Democrat Party in droves because they’ve saddled voters with record-high prices, soaring crime and a crisis along our southern border.”
The newly carved 15th Congressional District, which stretches from McAllen on the Mexico border north toward San Marcos, offers Republicans the best chance of flipping a long-held Democratic seat. Republican Monica De La Cruz will face off against either Ruben Ramirez or Michelle Vallejo, who are in a May 24 runoff for the Democratic spot on the ballot.
Nonpartisan race analysts listed the seat in Republican-leaning territory after redistricting this year gave the moderate blue district a more extensive Republican voting base. Ms. De La Cruz narrowly lost a 2020 bid to win the seat when the electorate was less Republican.
The 28th Congressional District, which stretches from San Antonio to the U.S.-Mexico border, is also a Republican target. The race is considered a toss-up but could lean toward the Republican candidate if liberal Jessica Cisneros defeats moderate incumbent Henry Cuellar in a May 24 Democratic Party runoff.
Ms. Cisneros is running on an agenda that includes ending the use of fossil fuels and implementing the Green New Deal, which would kill thousands of hydraulic fracturing jobs in South Texas.
Mr. Cuellar is a nine-term representative whose reelection prospects dimmed after the FBI raided his home and campaign office in January as part of an investigation into his ties to Azerbaijani companies.
Republicans say their party’s candidate could prevail in November if Ms. Cisneros wins the runoff because the district’s moderate voters will not back a far-left Democrat.
“There will be a better chance of the Republican winning over moderate Democratic voters, who are simply not going to be on board with Cisneros’ agenda,” Austin-based Republican Party strategist Matt Mackowiak said.
A Cuellar victory would also be problematic for Democrats because of the criminal investigation. Mr. Cuellar declared in a statement that the FBI raid would show no wrongdoing on his part.
Republicans consider Ms. Cisneros and Mr. Cuellar to be flawed candidates who will give them an advantage in November.
“In either scenario, that seat is going to move up the board for the GOP,” Mr. Mackowiak said.
The Republican candidate in the 28th District will be determined in the May runoff between Cassy Garcia, who garnered 24% of the primary vote in March, and Sandra Whitten, who came in second with 18% of the vote.
Some congressional race analysts also list the 34th District as competitive for Republicans, although Democrats maintain a significant advantage. The district stretches from Brownsville to Gonzales County, 250 miles north.
Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela is retiring, and Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who moved from the 15th District, won the Democratic primary. He will face Republican Mayra Flores.
“With a combination of independent voters frustrated with the direction of the country with Democrats in charge, Democratic voters who believe the national party is moving too far to the left, and unique district-specific dynamics — such as an investigation — Republicans could win a couple of seats that Democrats should win under normal circumstances,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan race analysis site Inside Elections. “It’s more of a reach for Republicans to win the 34th, but there’s no reason to rule out the possibility this far from Election Day.”
All three districts are heavily Hispanic and have voted reliably Democratic in the past, but that’s changing.
In the 2020 election, Joseph R. Biden lost nearly half of the vote that 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton garnered in the counties bordering Mexico.
In the 28th District, Mr. Biden defeated President Trump by about 4.4 percentage points, far underperforming Mr. Cuellar’s 19-point win over his 2020 Republican opponent. Mr. Biden’s support in the district was just a fraction of Mrs. Clinton’s 20-point win over Mr. Trump in 2016.
The results follow a trend in the 15th, 28th and 34th districts that began in 2018.
Voters in the 2018 election shifted from the Democratic to the Republican Party by nearly 9 percentage points in the 34th District, according to data from the Texas Legislative Council that was analyzed by Texan News.
The median vote migrated toward Republicans by 7 percentage points in the 15th District and by nearly 6 points in the state’s 28th District.
Mr. Trump is largely credited with expanding the Hispanic vote in South Texas. He received 32% of the Hispanic vote nationally in 2020. Republicans are hopeful that they can maintain the trend in South Texas even though Mr. Trump will not be on the ballot in November.
David Wasserman, who analyses House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, wrote this month, “The border crisis under Biden has only exacerbated Democrats’ woes” in Texas.
Mr. Wasserman cited a September poll by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler that found Mr. Biden’s approval rating at just 35% among Texas Hispanics.
Democratic Party officials deny that Republicans are in a position to win the three seats. They point out that Democrats turned out in much greater numbers than Republican voters in the March 1 primaries, an indication of voter enthusiasm.
Democrats say Republicans have picked a flawed candidate to run in the 15th District. Ms. De La Cruz is in the midst of a messy divorce, and her estranged husband has accused her of pinching and verbally abusing his daughter. Mrs. De La Cruzdenies the accusations.
“South Texas will stay blue because voters there know Democrats are the only party looking out for working families and delivering results,” said Helen Kalla, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Democrats are on the ground in South Texas talking face-to-face with voters earlier than ever and are building a campaign grounded in the community and issues they care about. By contrast, Republicans’ star recruit in South Texas is a conspiracy theorist dogged by allegations of ‘cruel’ mistreatment of her teenage stepdaughter.”
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