The Midterm Election at the Rio Grande

The Midterm Election at the Rio Grande
Screenshot | Twitter | Bill Melugin

As the final numbers trickle in from the congressional midterm elections, one thing is clear: In the five heavily Hispanic districts along the Rio Grande in Texas, Republicans did better than expected, with one notable exception — Texas’ 28th Congressional District, where Democratic incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar, a pro-life border hawk beat Republican challenger Cassie Garcia by 13.2 percentage points. It’s a lesson for candidates from both parties.

The Rio Grande Districts. The Southwest border is 1,954 miles long, and the majority of it — 1,254 miles — runs between Texas and Mexico along the Rio Grande, from El Paso in the west all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

There are five congressional districts along that border, from west to east: the 16th (El Paso), 23rd (Del Rio), 28th (Laredo), 15th (McAllen), and 34th (Brownsville) congressional districts.

Texas 16th Congressional District. The 16th Congressional District is both the westernmost and the smallest of the five, wholly contained within El Paso County, which is about 83 percent Hispanic.

The district has been represented in the House by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D) since Rep. Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke (D) declined to seek reelection to run (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate in 2018.

Political analysis site FiveThirtyEight reports that the 16th Congressional District, as currently drawn, has a “partisan lean” (defined as “the average margin difference between how [the] district votes and how the country votes overall”) of D+33.

In other words, the district is about 33 percent more Democratic than the average congressional district, and so the winner would be expected to be a Democrat who won by about 33 points. While Escobar won reelection, it was by a much tighter margin. According to CNN, she beat her Republican challenger, Irene Armendariz-Jackson, by 26.6 points, 63.3 percent for Escobar to 36.7 for Armendariz-Jackson.

On her campaign website, Escobar did all she could to shift attention away from the border, stating:

For too long, the US’ immigration strategy has focused only on the border. If we want to see long-term solutions, we need to address the reasons people are fleeing their country before they arrive at our nation’s door. We must also open pathways to citizenship and allow people to apply for asylum in their home countries instead of at our border.

Armendariz-Jackson, the wife of a Border Patrol agent, tackled the issue head-on on her campaign website, asserting “the United States must shut down the border and control the massive population of illegals coming over the border”, and called for completion of the “border wall”.

Escobar had a big funding edge over her Republican competitor, outraising Armendariz-Jackson by $1.2 million to just short of $351,000 for the challenger.

Texas 23rd Congressional District. The 23rd Congressional District, by comparison, is massive, running from the western outskirts of San Antonio to the eastern edge of El Paso. It is 68.2 percent Hispanic and represented by former U.S. Navy cryptologist Rep. Tony Gonzales (R).

Gonzales is a first-term incumbent, winning the seat after the retirement of GOP Rep. Will Hurd in 2020.

He had an easier time of winning than his predecessor: While Hurd never won either of his races in Texas 23 by much more than one percentage point, Gonzales won by four points in 2020, and by 17.2 points on Tuesday, taking 55.9 percent of the vote to his Democratic challenger, John Lira’s, 38.7 percent.

That’s particularly impressive, given that FiveThirtyEight gave the current 23rd District a partisan lean of R+13, meaning Gonzales overperformed by more than four points.

The border was a key talking point in Gonzales’ campaign, and his website describes him as “taking charge to deal with the fallout of the Biden border crisis” by authoring legislation that would “end catch-and-release” and put more Border Patrol agents back on the line.

Lira’s website sounded a much different tone, asserting that the nation needs to “reimagine immigration and fix our broken refugee asylum, immigration, and work visa [] processes”. The challenger supported “pathways for migrants to earn income and pay taxes while awaiting their asylum hearings”.

Gonzales’ margin of victory likely would have been even larger, but for the presence of a third-party candidate in the race, Independent Francisco “Frank” Lopez, who won a respectable 5.4 percent of the vote.

Lopez is a former Border Patrol agent who ran on an “America First” platform. Promoting himself as a “Border Security and Anti-Sex Trafficking Activist”, Lopez asserted on the “Issues” portion of his campaign website:

Biden’s lawlessness has enticed cartel criminal organizations to recruit our youth into a life of crime. Defending our sovereignty includes our moral obligation to protect life. The sexual exploitation of women and children is evil and made more tragic because of the role of non-government organizations (NGO) seeking lucrative contracts paid by our taxes. We must finish the wall, protect the USA and stop the politicization of our national security. I will be unrelenting in holding border agencies accountable to the Constitution. I will fight sold-out officials, greedy NGOs and Socialists!

Texas 28th Congressional District. While larger than the 16th District, the Texas 28th Congressional District doesn’t even begin to compare in size to Texas 23, but it’s still large, running to the northwest of San Antonio all the way down to Laredo. The district is also heavily Hispanic, with 76.9 percent of the residents identifying as such.

Cuellar, who has represented the district since 2005, is an outlier in the Democratic Party. NPR derided him in July as “one Democrat who opposes abortion rights”, and he was the sole holdout in his party not to vote for the “Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021”, a bill that would have codified Roe v. Wade.

He is also unique in Democratic circles in his complaints about President Biden’s border policies, calling on the president in September to “ramp up” border security in advance of the midterm elections. As he explained at the time on “Face the Nation”:

We've got to give Border Patrol, we've got to give ICE, Homeland Security, the equipment — you know, making sure they have everything where they can enforce the law, because if we don't have repercussions at the border, we're going to continue getting 8,000 people a day.

Cuellar’s constituents plainly liked what he was selling. While FiveThirtyEight rates the district as having a D+7 partisan lean, the incumbent beat his Republican challenger Garcia by 13.2 points: 56.6 percent to 43.4 percent.

That was after a bruising primary election in May, when Cuellar narrowly fended off (by 289 votes) a challenge by fellow Democrat Jessica Cisneros. Cisneros had called for “a more aspirant-friendly revamp of the nation’s immigration system” and repeal of the pro-enforcement Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

It would have been interesting to see how Cisneros would have fared in this race had she been the Democratic candidate in the midterm general election.

Texas 15th Congressional District. The 15th Congressional District was the only Democratic seat that Republicans flipped in the Lone Star State this year, as GOP candidate Monica De La Cruz defeated Democrat Michelle Vallejo in a district that is 80.6 percent Hispanic by 8.5 points, 53.3 percent to 44.8 percent.

De La Cruz is unapologetic about her support for border security. She ran on a platform of bringing back the Migrant Protection Protocols ( “MPP”, better known as “Remain in Mexico”), ending “catch and release”, finishing “the wall”, supporting Border Patrol and ICE, and supporting E-Verify.

Each of those positions put her at odds with the White House. Notably, Biden “paused” border-barrier construction shortly after taking office, and not only opposes Remain in Mexico (a Trump policy under which migrants were sent back across the border to await removal hearings), but has been fighting efforts by state plaintiffs to force DHS to reimplement the program since April 2021.

Vallejo, on the other hand, was very much in line with the White House, asserting on the immigration page of her campaign website that, “Everyone deserves the same opportunity to work hard and earn a better life for their families”.

She also wanted to make the “asylum process more efficient by investing in border infrastructure to ensure all ports of entry are equipped with the resources to handle the backlog of individuals seeking asylum” as well as for “refining our enforcement practices to become more conscious of humanitarian needs”.

De La Cruz’ victory is even more significant given that the 15th Congressional District is the only one in Texas that FiveThirtyEight rated as having no partisan lean at all, receiving a rating of “Even”.

To be fair, Vallejo performed particularly well in the southernmost county in the district, Hidalgo, which is 92.6 percent Hispanic and sits right on the border. She beat De La Cruz there by a margin of 55 percent to 43 percent. De La Cruz, however, won 52 percent of the vote in Jim Wells County, the population of which is more than 80 percent Hispanic.

Texas 34th Congressional District. Which brings me to the easternmost district, Texas 34, bordered by both the Gulf and the Rio Grande. The race there pitted two incumbents against one another, Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez Jr. vs. Republican Rep. Mayra Flores.

The race was complicated by the fact that Flores had won a special election in June to replace retiring Rep. Filemon Vela (D) in the old 34th District, while Gonzalez had represented the 15th District before, it, too, was redrawn in the 2020 decennial redistricting. The redrawn map put Gonzalez’ residence in the new 34th District, which as the Texas Tribune had noted in October was made “safer for Democrats”.

How safe? FiveThirtyEight gave the district a partisan lean of D+17, and by the time that most of the votes were counted, Gonzales had won by 8.4 points, 52.7 percent to 44.3 percent for Flores.

Texas 34 is 84.5 percent Hispanic, and Gonzalez walloped Flores in the portion of heavily Hispanic Hidalgo County that’s in the district, taking 58 percent of the vote to 39 percent for Flores. Flores held her own in Cameron County, however, which is 90 percent Hispanic, winning 47 percent of the vote to Gonzalez’ 50 percent.

Flores scored big in Kenedy County (which is 70 percent Hispanic), winning the vote there by a margin of 73 percent to 24 percent. It was not much to write home about, however, as just 139 votes were cast in the county, total. Flores also won, 54 percent to 44 percent in Kleberg County, which is 73.8 percent Hispanic.

Flores, the wife of a Border Patrol agent, ran as a border hawk, stating on her campaign website: “Illegal immigration encourages and funds human/child trafficking. ... We MUST secure our border to keep bad individuals out and to encourage LEGAL immigration”.

Gonzalez — who represented Texas 15 since 2017 — asserted on his campaign website that he supports “compassionate immigration reform with a pathway to earned citizenship” and called for a fix to “our broken immigration system with common-sense and compassionate reform that doesn’t tear families apart”.

Not many particulars there, and in that vein, he also advocated for combatting what he termed “criminal elements crossing the border with smart and thoughtful border security”.

As NBC News noted on November 9 in announcing his win: “Gonzalez had been seen as a shoo-in because the 34th District was made more Democratic, but Flores waged an aggressive, well-financed campaign that kept the race close heading into the election.”

Key Takeaways. Aside from the avowedly liberal 16th, immigration is a hot topic in Texas’ Rio Grande districts. The entire border has been shifting slightly more conservative, but the GOP still has a long way to go when it comes to winning over enough Hispanic voters there to shift the border red. That said, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) has shown Republicans can win Hispanic votes on a pro-enforcement platform, and if he heads the party’s ticket in 2024, it may make greater in-roads in the five Texas border congressional districts next cycle.

This article was originally published by the Center for Immigration Studies.


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