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South Texas congressional races heat up as primary nears

Texas’ 15th and 28th Congressional Districts are in GOP crosshairs as Democrats fight to retain control of both South Texas and the U.S. House of Representatives.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The road to Republicans recapturing the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022 runs through South Texas.

Ahead of primary voting this month, trained political eyes are watching two congressional districts in the region, gauging if Republicans can leverage their growing support among Latinos to end Democrats’ hold on the Rio Grande Valley.

The 15th and 28th Congressional Districts begin at the U.S.-Mexico Border and end east of San Antonio. Both districts are predominantly Hispanic and have traditionally been reliably Democratic. However, the politics of the region have been shifting red.

According to polling data from Edison Research, the GOP boost in South Texas was most noticeable from 2016 to 2020.

Hidalgo County, which is included in parts of the 15th District, went for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in 2016 by a margin of 68% to 28%. Just four years later, Trump picked up 41% of the vote compared to President Joe Biden's 58%.

In Zapata County, which falls within the 28th District, 52% voted for Trump in 2020 after Clinton won 65% of the vote in 2016.

Alex Kuehler, southwest communications director for the Republican National Committee, said in an interview that the shift began with Trump and is carrying over into the 2022 midterm elections.

“The border is the biggest issue,” he said. “People are seeing what is happening in their communities with the illegal immigration and month after month of new record highs of illegal border crossings.”

Kuehler sees the Biden administration’s response to immigration as a failure that is pushing many Hispanics and Latinos in the area to vote Republican.

"Many people down there have family that are in law enforcement that work as border patrol agents and with the Texas Department of Public Safety… and they don't like what they are seeing,” said Kuehler.

It's not just immigration that is creating cracks in Democrats' hold on the region. Redistricting opened both districts up to more voters that lean Republican. This is especially true for the 15th District.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston and co-host of the “Party Politics” podcast that focuses on state and national politics, said in an interview that redistricting dramatically reshaped the Texas political landscape for the next 10 years.

“The Republicans have drawn these lines to shore up support for seats that are already drawn. Effectively it became like an incumbent protection plan,” Rottinghaus said.

Republicans in the state secured their dominance by expanding the territory that encompasses urban and suburban areas to include rural areas that vote more reliably in their favor. This tactic was used in both the 15th and 28th Districts. Legislators expanded parts of the 28th District to include rural counties that previously belonged to the 15th District. Rural areas to the east of San Antonio were then added to the 15th District, further weakening Democrats' advantage in the district.

“I don’t think that [the 15th District] is necessarily a Republican district, this is definitely a toss-up. But if you are a Republican drawing this line then that is a win, because otherwise it was going to be solidly Democratic,” Rottinghaus said. 

Voters in the 15th District, which has been represented by Democrats since its creation in 1903, will be electing a new representative after the incumbent, Vicente Gonzalez, announced he will be running for reelection in the newly drawn 34th Congressional District. Gonzalez’s home was moved into the 34th District under the new redistricting plans finalized last year.

The Republican Party’s strategy to flip both the 15th and 28th Districts is to stick to what Kuehler described as a winning message of strong border policies and supporting law enforcement. 

A Border Patrol agent talks with a group suspected of having entered the U.S. illegally near McAllen, Texas, in 2019. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

But to the left, progressive candidates like Michelle Vallejo are running on a platform of Medicare for all, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and enacting welcoming immigration policies.

Vallejo described in an interview a mixed reception from voters in the newly drawn 15th District. She said that her message has resonated with younger Latino voters in the area, but she feels the pressure Republicans are putting into flipping the district.

“It’s been interesting because Monica De La Cruz is running again for the Republican Party and there is a lot of money going into her campaign, which has made some people assume that the race is over,” Vallejo said.

De La Cruz is seen as the favorite with the Republican nomination since she won it in 2020 and nearly defeated Gonzalez in the general election. According to the Federal Election Commission, De La Cruz has a substantial campaign bank account with over $600,000 of cash on hand and large donations coming in from all over the country. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has classified the 15th District as leaning Republican.

The 28th District is still seen as leaning Democrat, though incumbent Henry Cuellar of Laredo is facing challengers on all sides.

To Cuellar’s left, human rights lawyer Jessica Cisneros is attempting for a second time to deny him the Democratic Party's nomination, a goal she came within 4 percentage points of accomplishing in the 2020 primary. Cisneros – who has the backing of progressive heavyweights such as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. – has taken on Cuellar for his moderate views, especially his willingness to vote against measures to increase access to abortion. 

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, seven Republican candidates are vying for their party's nomination to flip the 28th District red for the first time since it was created in 1993. Sandra Whitten, who ran unsuccessfully in 2020 to unseat Cuellar, is seen as a frontrunner, raising more money than her fellow Republican challengers, according to the FEC. Another candidate, Cassy Garcia, does not have the funds Whitten has, but she does have a conservative track record after serving as deputy state director for Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.

Cuellar’s challengers have found fodder in a recent FBI raid of his home. The agency has not yet disclosed what it was investigating.

In a video posted to Twitter, Cuellar said that he is cooperating with law enforcement and that the investigation will show no wrongdoing on his part.

Cisneros said in a video responding to the congressman that news of the raid was alarming but not surprising. 

“There were already serious concerns about the congressman’s long history of corruption and delivering for his corporate donors instead of our voters here in Texas,” she said.   

Rottinghaus stressed that voting in the primary election is nearly as important, if not more, than voting in the general election.

“It is ironic because [primary] voting almost never exceeds the turnout in the general election,” the professor said. “Which is surprising since that is where all the action is.”

Early voting in the Texas primaries begins on Feb. 14. Election Day is March 1.

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