A Changing South Texas

By Jim Ellis — Monday, March 20, 2023


Demographics: A Shifting South Texas Electorate — Typically, not much used to happen politically in the Texas’ Rio Grande Valley congressional districts that touch the US-Mexico border, but such is not the case anymore.

Republican freshman Rep. Monica de la Cruz (R-McAllen) converted what became an open 15th District, which stretches from the San Antonio area all the way to the border.

We began seeing the political waves shifting in the 2020 presidential election when then-President Trump ran well ahead of a typical Republican national nominee in a region that was historically solid Democratic. In the five congressional districts that touch the Texas-Mexico border, President Biden was able to break 52 percent in only one of the seats, and that one is in the El Paso-anchored 16th District.

The trend carried over into the 2022 election where almost all of the state’s political action was centered in the border districts, and it’s not just because the cross points are being challenged and overrun with foreigners illegally coming into the United States. Largely due to the Biden Administration’s energy policies and the Democrats’ “Green New Deal” that is causing the area to lose energy-related jobs, Republicans are making political gains. In what were once highly safe Democratic CDs, we now see heightened political competition.

The region is changing to such a degree that now even one of the area’s Republican congressmen, Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-San Antonio) — in the district that stretches from San Antonio all the way to El Paso and contains more of the border territory than any district in the country — is facing a new primary challenge from his political right. This seat has been competitive for years in the general election, but now is settling itself as the South Texas region’s most reliable Republican seat.

Republican freshman Rep. Monica de la Cruz (R-McAllen — above), who converted what became an open 15th District that stretches from the San Antonio area all the way to the border in and around the McAllen area, looks to be in solid position for re-election next year.

Redistricting is a factor in the results, and if the GOP map drawers had known what would happen in a special election in the Brownsville-anchored 34th District early in 2022, they would likely have crafted different boundaries.

Mayra Flores

As a result, Republican Mayra Flores, who made national news in 2022 when she scored an upset special election win in the 34th, ultimately fell 51-43 percent to fellow Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-McAllen) in the general election. Rep. Gonzalez, seeing the trends in his 15th CD, decided to run for re-election in the more Democratic 34th after then-Rep. Filemon Vela resigned the seat to accept a position in the private sector.

The principal reason for Flores losing was not because of a Democratic rebound, but rather redistricting. According to the FiveThirtyEight data organization calculations, the 34th moved from a D+5 rating to D+17 making the seat difficult for any Republican to attain. This occurred because the map drawers wanted the adjacent 15th to become more Republican.

Seeing the political reality, Flores is now indicating that she is unlikely to run again in 2024. Under the previous map, both the 15th and 34th would have remained highly competitive.

The political winds are also changing on the Democratic side. Veteran Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), one of the most conservative members of the Democratic conference, barely won renomination in his last two primary battles, with the 2022 race coming down to his surviving by only 289 votes. He could face another contested Democratic race next year. Attorney Jessica Cisneros, who challenged the congressman in both 2020 and 2022, is said to be contemplating launching a third run.

The general election in Cuellar’s 28th CD that stretches from San Antonio to Laredo was also competitive in the 2022 general. GOP nominee Cassy Garcia, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), spent almost $3.5 million in her campaign in addition to heavy outside expenditures to challenge Rep. Cuellar. He prevailed 57-43 percent, but this is the first hotly contested general election this district had seen.

The political changes in South Texas are one reason Republicans are maintaining their strong position throughout the state and to a degree counters the shift occurring toward Democrats in the bigger cities of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin. It is now South Texas that is helping Texas Republicans continue to solidify the state as the party’s national anchor in the presidential race.

In what is expected to be another tight 2024 presidential campaign, another strong GOP Rio Grande Valley performance will help ensure that the Lone Star State remains out of reach for President Biden as he prepares to seek a second term.

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