Republicans seeking to win back the House see an opportunity for a symbolic victory in South Texas, where a June 14 special election to replace former Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela has given the GOP its best chance to flip a House seat since the 2020 elections.
The winner of the 34th District special election will serve only a few months before the November midterms, when new congressional maps will make the district less favorable to Republicans.
The race nevertheless could provide a boost in the midterms for the GOP to say that a district that went Democratic at the presidential and House levels two years ago had turned red. An early win there would also validate the attention the GOP has showered on Latino voters in border regions, whose defection from the Democratic Party in recent years has been a defining feature of the midterm elections.
“They are hungry for a win in South Texas,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist, referring to the GOP. “Talking about how they are going to win is one thing. But putting a win on the board is even better.”
Candidates have until April 13 to file for the special election, but national Republicans are already consolidating behind Mayra Flores, a respiratory care practitioner who is the GOP nominee seeking a full term in the seat in November.
Meanwhile, the Democratic nominee for the November race — Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who currently represents the neighboring 15th District — has said he isn’t running in the special election. Instead, he and Vela are backing attorney Dan Sanchez, who has served as a justice of the peace and Cameron County commissioner.
“I am confident that our Democratic candidate will win this race,” Gonzalez said in a statement.
Sanchez did not respond to interview requests. In a statement announcing his campaign, he noted that there were already two people on the ballot for the new district in November but the people in South Texas needed a representative to fill out Vela’s term “without missing a beat.”
‘Broken their promises’
Republicans seized on Gonzalez’s decision to sit out the special election as a sign of Democrats’ lack of confidence and immediately tried to poke holes in Sanchez’s campaign. On Friday, the domain name that Sanchez included in federal paperwork declaring his campaign, dansanchezforcongress.com, linked to a page soliciting donations for Flores from WinRed, a Republican fundraising platform endorsed by the NRCC.
“It’s clear Democrats have broken their promises to Texas voters,” NRCC spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair said. “They’ll lose this special election because they’ve created a border crisis they can’t fix and an inflation crisis that is costing Texans thousands at the grocery store and gas pump.”
President Joe Biden won the current 34th District by 4 points in 2020, compared with the 16-point margin he would have had in the new district, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.
Inside Elections rates the November race in the new district Solid Democratic. But David Wasserman, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, on Friday rated the special election a Toss-up, calling it “an early gift” to Republicans.
In a passage that the NRCC quoted in an email blast, Wasserman noted that the election follows the Biden administration’s announcement that it would rescind the Title 42 policy, a Trump-era emergency public health order that allowed Border Patrol agents to use concerns about potential COVID-19 infections to turn away asylum-seekers at the Mexico border.
“That gives Flores and Republicans a signature line of attack, given voters’ fears of a growing humanitarian catastrophe in their backyard,” Wasserman wrote.
‘Light their money on fire’
Vela, who won reelection by 14 points in 2020, resigned in March to take a job with the Akin Gump lobbying firm. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, could have left the seat vacant until the November election. His order calling an emergency special primary in June is a sign that the GOP sees an opportunity.
Republicans traditionally fare better than Democrats in special elections, when turnout is typically low, and special election turnout in South Texas is especially meager, said Rottinghaus, the University of Houston political scientist. He added that his research shows Republicans have been steadily increasing turnout in South Texas primaries since 2018.
Democrats, though, said they weren’t concerned. They pointed out that Democrats outpaced Republicans in all three border districts that the NRCC is targeting in the Texas primaries in March, including the 34th District.
“A Democrat will be sworn in to represent Texas’s 34th Congressional District in January 2023,” Monica Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “If the Republican Party wants to light their money on fire for a seat that is completely out of their reach come November, we warmly invite them to do so.”