Many Republican strategists and campaign experts distinctly remember the June day Mayra Flores won a special election deep in the historically Democratic, majority Latino, Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
“The fact that a Republican won in one of the most Hispanic districts in America is, you know, it’s game changing, regardless of the circumstances,” says Republican political consultant Mike Madrid.
Flores, a Latina born in Mexico, was the first Republican to win Texas’ 34th House district in more than 100 years by some measures. But it was a special election to fill the remainder of a waning term, so four months later, she’s striving to win the district again in the November midterms. The outcome of her race could reveal whether her win in June was a fluke, or a sign that the Republican Party’s efforts to win over Latino voters are working.
According to an NBC News/Telemundo poll released Oct. 2, Democrats still maintain a majority of Latino support nationwide, but that support has consistently declined over the past decade. Democrats currently hold a 20-point lead over Republicans among Latinos nationally, according to the poll, but held a 26-point lead in 2020, a 34-point lead in 2018, a 38-point lead in 2016, and a 42-point lead in 2012. In a state like Texas, where Latinos recently surpassed whites as the largest ethnic group in the state, strategists warn that both Republicans and Democrats need to engage with Latinos to either keep the state red—or turn it purple.
That’s why strategists will be closely watching Flores’ tight race against Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, who has been a member of the U.S. House since 2017 representing Texas’s 15th district, which neighbors the 34th district.
There are a few factors, analysts and political scientists say, that could work against Flores in the midterms. Gonzalez announced he would run in the 34th district in October 2021 after the state went through redistricting and his home ended up across district lines. The new 34th district Flores is campaigning for in the midterm elections is now bluer than it was when she won in June, according to an analysis by the Texas Tribune.
And Democrats may turn out in higher numbers in the midterm elections than they did over the summer, says Natasha Altema McNeely, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Low Democratic voter turnout during the special election contributed to Flores’s historical win: only 7.51% of registered voters in the district voted during the special election. “The Democratic national portion of the party didn’t bring much needed funding or resources down here to mobilize people,” says Altema McNeely. “That’s a really good explanation as to why we didn’t see as many Democratic voters mobilized on behalf of Congresswoman Flores’s Democratic opponent at the time that she was elected.”
But Gonzalez worries Democrats are making the same mistake again, which could help Flores. “These elections down in South Texas are going to be a real test to the Democratic Party, the National Democratic Party,” Gonzalez tells TIME, “on how much they value South Texas and Latinos in South Texas.”
Flores declined an interview with TIME. But she told Fox News on Monday, “The national Democrat party has abandoned the Hispanic community.”
“They don’t represent who we are,” she continued. “We’re pro-God, pro-family, all about hard work. That is just who we are in South Texas. The Democrat party just doesn’t represent those values. They have walked away from the Hispanic community.”
‘The margins are closing’
The new district lines in South Texas had made many skeptical that Flores can prevail again. But Republicans and Democrats alike think the national Democratic Party would need to spend more resources in the area to be sure to oust her.
Gonzalez appeared to hold a lead over Flores throughout the midterm campaign season, and the district lines help him: according to an analysis by the Texas Tribune, the newly redrawn 34th congressional district would have gone 57.2% for President Joe Biden in 2020, a 15.5 percentage point win over former President Donald Trump. Biden did win in the previous 34th district, but by 51.5% of the vote, only 4 percentage points more than Trump.
But on Wednesday, the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns, switched its categorization of the 34th district from leaning Democratic to declaring it a toss up race. “I completely dismissed [Flores] up until,” seeing the Cook report, Madrid says. “What that [report] tells me is that there’s evidence that this Hispanic shift is holding… It’s not just something that will have power in a low turnout election.”
And Gonzalez has had to fight. He has spent more than $2.2 million as of June 30, more than double what was spent to finance his 2020 campaign against another up-and-coming Republican Latina, Monica De La Cruz. Flores has spent more than $1.7 million as of Sept. 1, largely from out of state donations—something Gonzalez says is an indicator for how much the Republican Party wants to retain the seat. “Those millions of dollars didn’t come from South Texas, most of it didn’t even come from Texas,” Gonzalez says. “They came from other red states around the country that are trying to influence Latino votes.”
Democrats, on the other hand, aren’t flooding campaigns in the Rio Grande Valley with cash, according to Gonzalez. “[Democrats] can always do more and should do more,” he says.
Altema McNeely also says she has not seen the Democratic Party investing or mobilizing voters. “People, regardless of their partisanship, are noticing the lack of Democratic national leader presence in the [Rio Grande] Valley and the lack of resources dedicated to the candidates in the Valley,” she says.
Even if Flores loses next month, Republicans hope her campaign will still be a step in the right direction for the party. “No serious observer of the Latino vote is saying the Republicans are going to win over 50% of the vote,” Madrid says. “That’s not what’s happening. But the margins are closing.”
Republicans since 2020 have taken steps to win over Latinos throughout the country, arguing that the party can represent conservative Latinos who tend to value traditionalism and faith more than Democrats.
On Wednesday, The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for Latino civic engagement, released the findings of a 4-week-long national survey. NALEO found that the leading issue for Latinos broadly was the rising cost of living, followed by women’s reproductive rights—75% said they supported or strongly supported passing a law to guarantee access to abortion for people who need it, which could cut against some Republican appeals to the constituency after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer.
The Rio Grande Valley, largely made up of Mexican American Hispanics, may continue to be a testing ground for Republicans in search of Latino support. “Both parties better look at it and say this [population] is absolutely an integral part to any victory that you’re going to have, Republican or Democrat,” says Matt Langston, a general consultant in Austin at Engage Right, a conservative strategy firm. “The Hispanic and Latino communities here in Texas, I would argue, they haven’t even realized how much political muscle and power they have. It is only a matter of time, and you’re seeing it right here in this election cycle, how that that political influence is being flexed.”
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