Republicans are taking a victory lap this week after a special election in South Texas’ Congressional District 34. The seat, formerly held by Democrat Filemón Vela, came up for grabs after his abrupt retirement announcement in March – and GOP newcomer Mayra Flores handily flipped the seat on Tuesday.
Flores will run for re-election in November under new district lines that more heavily favor Democrats, but her win this week signifies how much the Republican Party put into flipping the seat. And if you hadn’t heard Flores’ name before, get ready to hear it a lot more, writes Texas Monthly political reporter Jack Herrera. He’s been covering the race and spoke with Texas Standard on what this means for November’s midterm elections just months away.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Can you tell us a little more about who Mayra Flores is and what helped her clinch this win?
Jack Herrera: Flores is a political newcomer, but in a lot of ways she has a background that is made for politics. She was born in Burgos, Tamaulipas, on the other side of the RGV border in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. She moved to Texas at a young age with her parents, who were itinerant farm workers, and spent her own childhood picking cotton and artichokes in Texas and other states.
Today, she’s an American citizen. She is married to a Border Patrol agent, and she is running as an orthodox conservative with a lot of the same points that Trump makes. She’s for militarizing the border. She’s in favor of gun rights. She is strongly against abortion, which is one of her core issues. And she comes out of a group of women who have taken South Texas by storm. These are women who volunteered with the Hidalgo GOP, the official party in Hidalgo County, and the Rio Grande Valley. And it’s pretty remarkable what these women have accomplished.
She goes up against Vicente Gonzalez, who has changed districts. He currently represents Texas’ 15th District. I would imagine this would give Mayra Flores a leg up in November or a head start momentum-wise. How do you see it?
Yeah, the fact that very soon here we’re going to start referring to Mayra Flores as Congressman Flores is nothing but an advantage for her. I think that the benefits of incumbency, beyond just being symbolic for voters, means that the national Republican Party and the Republican National Committee will throw their weight behind her, even more so as one of their own.
That said, she does face a very tough race in November. Part of the reason that Vicente Gonzalez, at least part of the reason that he decided not to run in the 15th District and run in the 34th District, is because after redistricting, Republicans targeted the 15th to make it more competitive for Republicans and make the 34th a much safer Democratic district. And that worked by taking Democratic voters out of the 15th District and putting them into the 34th District. And so, they will have a major advantage come November. In fact, the new lines of the 34th District would have gone for Biden by something like 15 points.
There’s a feeling that the Democrats have taken this region for granted, and a lot of question marks about whether or not there is a Republican tilt in deep South Texas. What’s your take?
I think that in many ways it’s still an open question. And Republicans have been trying to provide an answer. In a lot of ways, they have a cheat code for South Texas. That’s not to say they’re cheating, but they have done everything they can to give their candidates an advantage. So, for instance, redistricting: The 15th District becomes a much more competitive district by taking out Democratic voters. And now in District 34, Congressman Vela gave them a real advantage because when he retired, even though District 34 has become more heavily Democratic, Mayra Flores, in a special election, ran under the old lines of the 34th District, which was a much more closely aligned district between the Republicans and Democrats.
And so, I think that the fact that she ran against the old lines, she didn’t really have a real Democratic contender because Vicente Gonzalez is currently in Congress and didn’t run against her in the special election. And so, she was the only candidate who had support from a national party. She was the only candidate who had hundreds of thousands of dollars in her war chest and a campaign up and running when the special election was announced. And so, it’s a difficult question to say, did she win because of ideology, because people in South Texas are moving to the right, or did she win because she had some pretty serious structural advantages? So, those are still open questions.