Although more competitive than any previous election cycle, the midterm elections in the Rio Grande Valley re-elected many of the Democratic Party’s incumbents.
Republican candidates in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley have perpetuated a national narrative that a “red wave” of GOP support will head to the polls on November 8. Blaming rising inflation and rising migrant numbers on President Joe Biden’s policies, their positions were featured in a flurry of attack ads on local news networks.
But that seemed to be all it was: a narrative after the GOP managed to flip just one state House seat and one congressional district. Even in the state’s biggest race, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott won none of the four Rio Grande Valley counties.
Mayra Flores, Cassie García and Monica De La Cruz became the faces of Republican hopes in the region, calling themselves the “triple threat”. All campaigned as anti-abortion, pro-border-wall candidates against the Democratic establishment, portraying their opponents as corrupt or too radical for South Texas.
Of the three candidates, only De La Cruz, an insurance agent based in Alamo, was chosen. She won Texas’ 15th congressional district and is the first Republican elected to the seat. De La Cruz benefited from a Republican-leaning redistricting that would have been carried by former President Donald Trump by 2.8 percentage points. The district previously favored President Joe Biden by 1.9 percentage points.
Flores, the incumbent of Texas’ 34th congressional district, lost to three-term congressman Vicente Gonzalez by 8 percentage points. Garcia, a former staffer for Sen. Ted Cruz, lost to nine-term congressman Henry Cuellar by 13 percentage points.
Of the three, Flores was the only official. She was elected in a special election after then-incumbent Filemon Vela left the seat to work with a lobbying firm in Washington, DC. Flores’ choice against moderate, pro-life Democrat Dan Sanchez signals to the GOP a possible swing in the RGV electorate after it had already invested heavily in De La Cruz’s race earlier in the year.
But the margin of Flores’ victory in June was narrow, securing only 50.9% of the vote.
The same is true of the increase in the GOP vote in the Rio Grande Valley during this midterm compared to the 2020 election. According to the secretary of state’s voter data, the region has seen only a small increase and even a decrease in GOP turnout. party compared to 2020
Like Abbott, neither Republican candidate has carried a Rio Grande Valley district in their races.
GOP weighs wins amid losses in South Texas
The GOP’s heavy investment in the district, however, did not come without some gains in traditionally Democratic areas. While voter turnout may have been limited year-to-date in 2020, compared to the 2018 midterm elections, GOP turnout increased between 10 and 18 percentage points in all four Rio Grande Valley counties.
Republicans had some victories after the vote, though not in many of the high-profile congressional races. Some of those wins came in previously Democratic districts that were redrawn to lean Republican. As reported by the McAllen Monitor, these redistricting efforts were paramount to the GOP’s successes in the Rio Grande Valley.
Cameron County GOP Chairman and Texas GOP State Committeeman Morgan Cisneros Graham was not surprised by the results given how the districts were drawn. De La Cruz and Flores’ campaigns also had more national and state investment than local races.
Graham says the “red wave” narrative — a term she says she’s never been a fan of — has been useful for national and state GOP fundraising. But hardly any of that investment made it to local races.
“When people saw all this money being pumped into our district, it was pumped into just two federal races,” Graham said.
She continued: “We have not seen this (investment) trickle down at all to these local offices. Also, since the focus is on the top of the ticket, it always hurts the bottom ballot.”
Democrats oppose the idea of growing GOP power
As for the local races in the Rio Grande Valley, most of the Democrats were re-elected. Nonetheless, GOP gains in the RGV hurt the state’s Democratic Party.
In internal note acquired by the Texas Tribune, the Texas Democratic Party blamed GOP dark money, manipulation, voting restrictions from Senate Bill 1 and a lack of support from national Democratic organizations for the party not “making even bigger gains” during in the elections.
“Their insidious smash-and-pack strategy just made a few seats more Republican-leaning, but it also intentionally made ‘safe Democratic’ districts — the ones Republicans knew they could afford to lose — even bluer,” Jamar , executive director of the Texas Democratic Party Brown said in the memo. “These less competitive races mean less money invested and less overall Democratic campaigning — which, as we’ve seen, leads to lower awareness and lower voter turnout across the board.”
But the GOP’s gains in the district are not entirely unexpected. The GOP’s investments in the area in the form of large campaign donations, the opening of a “Hispanic Community Center” and grassroots organizing directly engaged a base that felt ignored by the Democratic Party.
“Those Democratic leaders who have been in power in the Valley for a long time, they haven’t traditionally worked very hard to expand the electorate,” Cecilia Bali, a cultural anthropologist and journalist, told NPR. “So I don’t think it’s just the national Democratic Party that has taken Latinos for granted: I think the local Democratic Party has done the same. So you have some disgruntled voters who are willing to try something different.”
Flores capitalized on that sentiment in his campaign, saying the Democratic Party has abandoned South Texas.
After the election, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa saw the GOP’s gains in the Rio Grande Valley as a “fluke,” calling De La Cruz’s election a sign of GOP recruitment “absolute nonsense.”
“There was no red wave in South Texas,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “Republicans in Austin and D.C. need to understand that if — even in a year where Republicans were supposed to win by a landslide across the country, they barely managed that win here — they should probably pack their bags and get the hell out from our region.”
Hinojosa’s confidence comes from Democrats holding most of the Rio Grande Valley seats up for election. Still, in the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley, Democrats saw slim wins — and slim losses — that some say should give them pause.
“The thing we’re not going to go back to is the idea that the Democratic Party automatically has the support of Latino voters because they’re ethnically ‘other’ and because they’re working class,” Bali said.
Local GOP Chairman Morgan Cisneros Graham says the party is now looking toward the 2024 primary, focusing on local, judicial and school board elections in the Rio Grande Valley. Arguing that the benchmark for what constitutes a “red wave” in Texas politics has never been defined, she says the GOP gains have been positive for the party.
“If someone is more foundational race-oriented, as I am, then the impression will be that there is no red wave in the RGV,” Graham said. “But if you’re someone who looks more at the more legislative-type impact offices, some would say it was more of a purple wave and there was progress.”