Though more competitive than any previous election cycle, the Rio Grande Valley midterm elections saw many of its Democratic representatives reelected.
Republican candidates across Texas’ Rio Grande Valley continued a statewide narrative that a “red wave” of GOP support would come to the November 8 election. They blamed President Joe Biden’s policies for rising inflation and increasing migrant crossings, and their stances have been shown in a spate of attack ads on local news networks.
But it seems that was all: a narrative after the GOP managed to flip just one seat in the House of Representatives and one congressional district. Even in the state’s largest race, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t wear any of the four counties of the Rio Grande Valley.
Mayra Flores, Cassy Garcia and Monica De La Cruz became the face of the region’s Republican hopes, dubbing themselves the “triple threat.” All campaigned against the establishment Democratic Party as anti-abortion and border wall-supporting candidates, describing their opponents as corrupt or too radical for South Texas.
Of the three candidates, only De La Cruz, an Alamo-based insurance agent, was elected. She won in Texas’ 15th congressional district and is the first Republican to be elected to the seat. De La Cruz benefited from a redrawn district that favored the Republicans and would have set former President Donald Trump back by 2.8 percentage points. Previously, the district favored President Joe Biden by 1.9 percentage points.
Flores, the incumbent of Texas’ 34th congressional district, lost 8 percentage points to three-time congressman Vicente Gonzalez. Garcia, a former associate of Senator Ted Cruz, lost 13 percentage points to nine-year-old Congressman Henry Cuellar.
Of the three, Flores was the only incumbent. She was elected during a special election after then-incumbent Filemon Vela left the seat to work with a Washington, DC lobbying firm. The election of Flores against moderate, pro-life Democrat Dan Sanchez signaled to the GOP a possible turn of the electorate to the RGV after investing heavily in the De La Cruz race earlier in the year.
But Flores’ winning margin in June was slim, securing just 50.9% of the vote.
So did the margins of GOP vote increases in the Rio Grande Valley during this half-term compared to the 2020 election. According to the Secretary of State’s voter data, the region saw little gains and even declines in GOP turnout compared to 2020.
Like Abbott, none of the Republican candidates wore a Rio Grande Valley County in their races.
GOP weighs wins amid losses in South Texas
However, the GOP’s heavy investment in the region has not been without some gains in traditionally Democratic districts. Although turnout from 2020 to date may have been limited compared to the 2018 midterm election, GOP turnout increased by 10 to 18 percentage points in all four counties of the Rio Grande Valley.
Republicans had some electoral victories, though not in many of the high-profile congressional elections. Some of these victories have come in districts that previously favored Democrats that were redrawn to lean toward Republicans. As reported by the McAllen Monitor, these redistricting efforts were paramount to the GOP’s successes in the Rio Grande Valley.
Cameron County GOP chairperson and Texas Republican Party committee member Morgan Cisneros Graham was not surprised by the results, given how the districts were drawn. The De La Cruz and Flores campaigns also had more national and state investment compared to local races.
Graham says the narrative of the “red wave” — a term she says she was never a fan of — has been helpful for the national and state GOP to raise funds. But hardly any of these investments made it to local races.
“When people saw all this money being pumped into our area, it was only pumped into two federal races,” Graham said.
She continued: “We haven’t seen that (investment) flow into these local offices at all. Also, since the focus is on top of the ticket, it always hurts your choice.”
Democrats resist the notion of growing GOP power
Local races in the Rio Grande Valley saw most of the Democratic incumbents re-elected. Regardless, the GOP’s gains in the RGV affected the state’s Democratic Party.
In an internal memo The Texas Democratic Party, which was acquired by the Texas Tribune, accused the GOP of dark money, gerrymandering, Senate Act 1 voting restrictions and a lack of support from national Democratic organizations for the party not “making even bigger gains” during the election.
“Their insidious cracking-and-packing strategy has not only made some seats more Republican, but deliberately ‘safe Democratic’ districts — ones that Republicans knew they could afford to lose — even bluer,” he said Jamarr, executive director of the Texas Brown Democratic Party, 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 this area aren’t entirely unexpected. The Republican Party’s investment in the region in the form of large campaign contributions, the opening of a Hispanic Community Center, and grassroots organizing directly engaged a grassroots that has felt ignored by the Democratic Party.
“Those Democratic leaders who have long been in power in the Valley have traditionally not worked very hard to expand the electorate,” Cecilia Ballí, a cultural anthropologist and journalist, told NPR. “So I don’t think it’s just the National Democratic Party that’s taking Latinos for granted: I think the local Democratic establishment has done the same. And so you have some disaffected voters willing to try something different.”
Flores used that sentiment in her campaign, saying the Democratic Party has left South Texas.
After the election, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa viewed the GOP’s gains in the Rio Grande Valley as “a fluke” and called De La Cruz’s election a sign that the GOP is gaining ground, “completely.” bullshit”.
“There was no red wave in South Texas,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “Republicans in Austin and DC should understand that if — even in a year where Republicans should win by a landslide across the country — if they could barely get that one win here — they’re probably going to pack their bags and damn it should disappear from our region.”
Hinojosa’s confidence comes from Democrats managing to hold most of the seats in the Rio Grande Valley for the election. Still, in the Latino-heavy Rio Grande Valley, Democrats saw narrow victories — and narrow defeats — that some say should give them pause.
“We’re not going to go back to this notion that the Democratic Party automatically has the support of Latinos because they’re ethnically ‘different’ and because they’re working class,” Ballí said.
Local GOP chair Morgan Cisneros Graham says the party is now looking ahead to the 2024 primary and focusing on municipal, judicial and school board elections in the Rio Grande Valley. Claiming that the metric for what constitutes a “red wave” in Texas politics has never been defined, she says the GOP’s gains have been positive for the party.
“If someone is more foundational, which I tend to be, it would seem like there wasn’t a red wave in RGV,” Graham said. “But if you’re someone more concerned with the impactful, more legislative offices, some would argue, well, it’s been more of a purple wave and there’s been progress.”