TX-34 Special: High GOP Hopes

Introduction

What is South Texas? The answer to that question varies from person to person, but most political observers generally agree that a few basic categories distinguish the region from the rest of the state. Before any discussion of the 34th district special election can be had, it is important to understand these unique area characteristics.

Let’s start with geography. South Texas spans the greater Rio Grande Valley between Cameron and Maverick counties. This description is a bit disingenuous, though, considering the distinction between the lower RGV (Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr) oft-mentioned by political analysts and the rest of the Lonestar State’s southern border.

This entire region is heavily Hispanic and substantially rural, though cities like Brownsville, McAllen, and Laredo account for most of the voting population. In the 2020 Presidential election, Latino communities across Texas shifted rightward. While it is true that Trump improved the Republican showing in heavily-Hispanic precincts in metros like Houston and San Antonio, GOP gains were most pronounced in the cities and hinterlands of South Texas.

Like it or not, there is a big difference between a 5-10 point swing and a one of 20-40 points. It can be conceded that many of the most drastic regional swings stemmed from precincts with a mere handful of voters, but that does not change the fact that the average presidential swing in majority-Hispanic precincts was larger in South Texas than in other parts of the state. With this in mind, a new question comes to the fore: why is this shift occurring?

Educational polarization is a phenomenon that moves in tandem with political polarization. Split Ticket frequently uses this metric to gauge the effect of educational attainment on working-class white voting, but we believe that it sheds light on recent changes to regionalized Hispanic voting patterns too.

Trump’s socially-conservative Republican message resonated with the white working class in 2016, but failed to scratch the surface in traditionally-Democratic South Texas. In 2020, many Latinos developed negative perceptions of national Democrats and took a closer look at the GOP. Long story short, Trump’s breakthrough will probably become more of a norm than an exception over the next decade.

True to midterm tradition, 2022 is already expected to move against the President’s party. But Split Ticket believes that Democratic losses could actually be abnormally magnified in South Texas. Assuming recent GOP foundations define long-term Hispanic directionality across the Rio Grande Valley, down ballot Democratic strength will continue to erode.

The future for the ancestral party of South Texas is now bleak, suggesting that a total collapse will occur sooner or later. This year’s midterm could just be the straw that breaks the ancestral camel’s back.

If our new conventional wisdom holds up this fall, Republicans could realistically sweep all three Rio Grande congressional districts. We’ll have more on those races, our ratings, and the electoral caveats at the end of this piece. First, let’s focus on the first pre-election litmus test of GOP momentum in South Texas: the TX-34 special election.

The Vacancy

Democratic Congressman Filemon Vela Jr. was first elected to his newly-drawn seat in 2012. While his district did not technically have an incumbent, the section spanning from Cameron to Kleberg counties was represented by freshman Republican Blake Farenthold at the time. Before Farenthold’s Nueces County-driven upset in 2012, veteran Democrat Solomon Ortiz represented much of what would become Vela’s seat.

Redistricting delivered Farenthold a safer seat stretching northward from Corpus Cristi, likely bailing him out of a reelection loss. The same process benefitted Democrats that year in the new 34th. Before 2020, Republicans did not think they could gain ground in counties like Hidalgo and Cameron at the federal level – let alone down ballot. This conventional wisdom held up for an entire decade. Vela claimed easy victories at the ballot box in ensuing elections, often outrunning the top of the ticket. His closest race, as one might expect, occurred in 2020.

Vela, who had previously announced his retirement, resigned on March 31st to join the popular Washington lobbying/law firm Akin Gump, an entity employing erstwhile politicians like Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly and Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

The District & Election

Let’s get to the meat and potatoes of this piece: a background discussion of the 34th district and the special election itself. There are a few important procedural points worth mentioning before handicapping the race.

  1. Because this special election is occurring during a redistricting cycle, it will be held under 2012 district lines.
  2. Like in many southern states, Texas special elections are conducted on an open ballot in the style of a jungle primary. In other words, all three candidates will appear on the same June 14th ballot regardless of political affiliation.
  3. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote in the 1st round, a runoff will be held between the top two finishers; the date for that hypothetical contest has not been set.

As our readers probably know, the old iteration of the 34th district did not become competitive at the federal level until the 2020 presidential election. The seat voted for Obama 61-38 in 2012, but only broke for Joe Biden 51-47. That stunning shift did not dislodge Vela though. Like Henry Cuellar in the 28th, he was able to combine residual good will and down ballot Democratic strength to outrun the top of the ticket. Put specifically, Vela won a Biden +4 seat by 14 points.

To briefly examine how former President Trump set a new GOP baseline in the 34th, we must do a geographical breakdown of the district.

The most important county in the seat is easily Cameron, which accounted for a majority of the voting population in 2020. Cameron shifted from Clinton +32 to a mere Biden +15, with Trump increasing GOP vote share by 11 points. Similar Republican gains were also made in Hidalgo, Willacy, and Jim Wells counties. Those directional changes combined with the small but significant Republican voting power of the 34th’s underpopulated, majority-white northern counties to make the district close.

Candidates

*For the sake of this article, Split Ticket will only focus on the two main candidates for the seat: (R) Mayra Flores and (D) Dan Sanchez*

Split Ticket has been watching Mayra Flores with inquisitive eyes since the 2022 House cycle began. A respiratory care practitioner and Hidalgo County GOP Hispanic outreach chair, Flores joins a trio of formidable Latina candidates in South Texas that also includes Monica de la Cruz (TX-15) and Cassy Garcia (TX-28).

On the Democratic side, former Cameron County Commissioner Dan Sanchez will be seeking election to the seat. 15th district Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez is seeking reelection in the redrawn 34th but will not resign his seat to run in the upcoming special under the old lines. Gonzalez’s switch will increase his fall reelection chances because redistricting made the 34th bluer, but the race there is still expected to be close and could flip outright with Flores as a co-incumbent.

If Sanchez wins, he will be a placeholder like Republican Connie Conway in California. A Flores victory, on the other hand, would pit two incumbents against each other in this cycle’s only redistricting general election.

The 2018 contest in PA-17, a mid-decade contest between incumbents Conor Lamb and Keith Rothfus, forms a valid comparison. Like Lamb, Flores could theoretically win the special and the November general. The single caveat: Lamb’s special election victory occurred in a much redder seat than did his general election win.

Expectations

For GOP frontrunner Mayra Flores to win this district, she must build further off of Trump’s gains in Cameron, Hidalgo, Willacy, and Jim Wells counties. Given the favorable Republican midterm environment and the lack of a redoutable incumbent like Vela on the ballot, such a GOP overperformance seems well within the realm of possibility. Split Ticket also believes that down ballot Democratic strength – the only thing on Sanchez’s side – could rapidly erode in South Texas this cycle, perhaps confirming a regional realignment for the coming decade.

With these basic considerations in mind, the Texas-34 special will begin at Leans Republican. In other words, we expect Mayra Flores to flip the seat to the GOP in either the 1st round or a hypothetical 2nd canvass*. An outright Republican victory on the first ballot would be a particularly stark confirmation of regional trends, reinforcing the possibility of a total wipe-out for Democrats in South Texas House contests this fall.

*Juana Cantu-Cabrera, a minor Republican candidate, could draw enough votes away from Flores to force a runoff. Nevertheless, we consider an outright Flores victory far more likely than an outright one for Sanchez*

Bigger Picture – South Texas Ratings

  • TX15 (Likely R)
  • TX28 (Tossup)
  • TX34 General (Lean D)
  • TX34 Special (Lean R)

Read more about our Texas ratings here.

Other Changes

In addition to our introductory ratings in Texas and Maryland, Split Ticket has six ratings shifts to report on. To summarize, all of these changes reflect an increasingly-Republican national environment. Our full House ratings can be found here.

  • CA22 Special (Likely R – Safe R)
  • CA03 (Likely R – Safe R)
  • CO03 (Likely R – Safe R)
  • MTAL (Likely R – Safe R)
  • VA10 (Safe D – Likely D)
  • NY11 (Lean D – Tossup)

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

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