Republicans seek midterm momentum in Texas special election

Money flows to flip 34th District seat, which could flip back in November

Republican Mayra Flores is running in a special election Tuesday for the remainder of former Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela's term in Texas' 34th District. Vela has endorsed Democrat Dan Sanchez, a former county commissioner. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Republican Mayra Flores is running in a special election Tuesday for the remainder of former Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela's term in Texas' 34th District. Vela has endorsed Democrat Dan Sanchez, a former county commissioner. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 13, 2022 at 5:45am, Updated at 9:27am

Republicans seeking to demonstrate their gains among Latino voters in South Texas have made a big investment in flipping Texas’ 34th District in a special election Tuesday, even though a win for the GOP could be short-lived because the district has been redrawn to more heavily favor Democrats in November.  

Still, Republicans see the race as a chance to build momentum for the midterms, when the district is one of five South Texas open seats and districts held by Democrats the GOP has targeted for a takeover. And some Democrats in the region are worried that the comparatively lackluster investment from their side in Tuesday’s contest could help the GOP gain a foothold in the region.

“It’s a golden opportunity for Republicans to consolidate recent gains and build upon them, and it would be a sign of confidence in what Republicans have been doing in terms of investment and outreach in south Texas,” said Texas-based GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak.

He said a win for Republican Mayra Flores would give her a head start on the general election, when he predicted an acceleration in the migration of Hispanic voters to the GOP. 

Flores and Democrat Dan Sanchez are running to fill the remainder of the term of Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela, who resigned in March. Flores also won the primary in March to run for the seat in November, when it will be realigned from one President Joe Biden won by 4 points to one Biden would have won by 16 points. Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who now holds the 15th District seat, which became more of a battleground in redistricting, is running in the 34th in November. The race in November is rated Solid Democratic by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.  

Flores is a respiratory care practitioner whose parents immigrated from Mexico when she was 6, and she has been involved in Hispanic voter outreach for the local GOP, a profile similar to candidates the party has sought to promote across the country as it highlights its recruitment of women and minorities, especially in swing districts.

Flores told CQ Roll Call that her candidacy served as a challenge to the Democratic establishment. She criticized Vela’s time in Congress as ineffective for his constituents, and characterized the Democratic Party as feeling entitled to the South Texas vote while putting forth very little effort.

“Prior to me running, no one cared about our district or who we were or what we had to say,” she said. “No one valued our voices. And it was because our current congressman never cared to put us at that level where Washington was listening to us. He kept us down here, kept us at the bottom and didn't want Washington to hear us, what we had to say.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Monica Robinson predicted Democrats would control the seat come January.

"If Republicans spend money on a seat that is out of their reach in November, great," Robinson said. "But Mayra Flores is a far-right, MAGA extremist who is completely out of touch with South Texans. The DCCC is focused on winning seats in November and we are committed to ensuring Hispanic voters get the representation they deserve when Vicente Gonzalez is elected to a full term this fall."

Gonzalez and Vela have endorsed Sanchez, a former county commissioner who is not running in November.

Sanchez was a mentee of Vela’s late father, a former federal judge, and said in an interview that the former congressman recruited him to run.

“The Vela family had done so much for me and my career and opening the path for me that it was almost like I had to do it as a form of a thank you to them,” Sanchez said.
While in high school, Sanchez was a juror on a mock trial presided over by Vela’s father at the federal courthouse in Brownsville (which now bears Vela Sr.’s name). That experience propelled his legal and political career, he said.

With two other candidates on the ballot — Republican Juana "Janie" Cantu-Cabrera and Democrat Rene Coronado — and voter turnout expected to be low, the election could also be forced into a runoff sometime in August if no candidate wins a majority of the vote. 

Sanchez and Flores are the only candidates who reported fundraising to the Federal Election Commission through May 25. Sanchez’s $146,000 is a pittance compared to the $1.1 million raised by Flores, which includes $75,000 from House Republicans' campaign committees and leadership PACs. Flores has poured much of that money into broadcast advertising, texts to voters, campaign materials and travel across the region to meet with donors and voters — all the trappings of a serious campaign. On top of her own fundraising, she received $353,000 in outside support from three powerful national Republican PACs, about two-thirds of which came from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC allied with the House GOP leadership. Its Democratic counterpart, House Majority PAC, has spent $115,000 to oppose Flores, disclosures through Thursday showed. 

Colin Strother, a South Texas-based Democratic strategist, said he was worried Democrats are taking the region for granted. “The Republicans — they are faking it until they make it. They are pretending that South Texas will turn Red. Even a win in a semi-meaningless special election still supports that narrative and fuels that conversation, which is not good.”

Democrats have sought to portray Flores as an extremist who hyped the QAnon conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump was leading a secret fight against a pedophilic ring in elite Washington, and that she spread misinformation about COVID-19.

Flores, who used the hashtags #q  and #qanon on an Instagram post, has denied any  support  for  the  movement. 

Focus on oil jobs, and guns

But Strother said such attacks won’t resonate without the money behind them, especially considering the fragmented media markets in the district.

He added that Republican messaging about immigration, protecting oil and gas jobs and preserving gun rights has also resonated in the region on the Mexican border, where oil rigs are common and almost everyone owns guns. 

Sanchez, meanwhile, said at a candidate forum last week that he is “100 percent pro-life,” a position that would appeal to many of the conservative voters in the region but put him at odds with Democrats in Washington. It also risked inflaming opposition from young activists in the district at a time when he needs to consolidate Democratic support. 

But Matt Angle, the founder of the Texas-based Democratic PAC the Lone Star Project, said concern has been overblown. He was also unconvinced that the GOP would make significant gains among Hispanic voters in November. 

“Republicans do this all the time, and the media falls for it every time,” he said. “They spend all this money and say they’re going to get a higher percentage of the Hispanic vote. … Usually, when Republicans spend money and organize down there, they do a little better among Hispanics, but what they really do is turn out all the white voters there.”

Jackie Wang and Paul Fontelo contributed to this report.