Rep. Vela to Resign; Another Special?

Texas Congressional Redistricting Map (click here or on map to see larger, interactive version)

By Jim Ellis

March 28, 2022 — If the upcoming Alaska special election isn’t complex enough, with the top-four jungle primary feature complete with Ranked Choice Voting that will be used to replace the late at-large Rep. Don Young (R-Ft. Yukon), the developing situation in Texas may be even more confusing.

A year ago March, five-term South Texas Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Brownsville) announced that he would not seek re-election in 2022, becoming one of the first sitting incumbents to enter into lame duck status. Late last week Vela made public his intention to resign in the “next few weeks” in order to accept a position with the Akin Gump law firm.

Texas election law states that a vacancy in office must be filled at the next regular election, or earlier if the governor rules that an emergency exists. In a similar situation before the regular 2018 election, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called an emergency special election to immediately replace resigned GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold. Current Rep. Michael Cloud (R-Victoria) won his initial election as a result.

In the current political climate, with the country facing record inflation, sky-high energy prices, a border crisis, oil and gas production limitations as a matter of policy, and a hostile invasion in eastern Europe not seen since the days of Adolph Hitler in the pre-World War II period, the governor could easily claim that enough issues need addressing by a full Texas delegation. Therefore, he could justify calling an immediate special election.

If so, the situation becomes interesting. The winner of Rep. Vela’s 34th District open Democratic primary on March 1 was sitting 15th District Congressman Vicente Gonzalez (D-McAllen). He is seeking re-election in the 34th with Rep. Vela’s endorsement instead of in his original district that is trending more Republican. Therefore, if a special election is held prior to the regular election, Rep. Gonzalez would have to resign his 15th CD seat upon winning the subsequent election, thus creating another short-term vacancy.

Immediately, however, Rep. Gonzalez said he will serve the remaining part of the term in the 15th, so if a special is called outside of the regular calendar, another individual will represent the 34th for a short period and would become the incumbent for the regular election if a Republican. Should a Democrat win a pre-election special, however, the individual could not run in the regular general election because Gonzalez is already the District 34 party nominee by virtue of his victory in the regular March 1 primary election.

If an election is called, it is within the realm of possibility that a Republican could win. The current 34th now is calculated as a D+5 district that could flip in a low turnout special election especially without Gonzalez on the ballot. Since a Democratic candidate would not be eligible to run in the regular election, it is doubtful that the party could draw a top-tier contender. Doing so would allow a Republican special election winner to then run in the new 34th as the incumbent.

Redistricting significantly changed the current seat that begins at the Texas-Mexico border and stretches north through Harlingen, then around but not including the Corpus Christi region, before ending fairly close to the eastern San Antonio suburbs.

The new 34th, which had to gain more than 55,000 people to meet the state per district population requirement of 766,987 people, moves west along the border to annex smaller communities along Interstate 2, such as Mercedes, before encompassing parts of the cities of McAllen and Edinburg. Making these changes along with curtailing the 34th District’s size, creates a new D+17 CD.

While a Republican would have a difficult time in the new district, such a scenario would give the party some chance to score a major upset in a strong Democratic seat. It remains to be seen if the governor would call an emergency special, but the option exists should he choose to make such a decision … in the same manner as he did previously.

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