Republicans hope to pick up a soon-to-be vacated congressional seat in South Texas, but would it stay red for long?

A Texas politics expert says a summer special election in Texas’ 34th Congressional District wouldn’t necessarily determine how the district votes in November.

By Rhonda Fanning, Jill Ament & Caroline CovingtonMarch 29, 2022 11:22 am,

Since the 2020 elections, South Texas has become increasingly more Republican. And Texas Republicans set out to make their chances of winning in the region even better when they redrew the state’s political maps in 2021.

But one newly redrawn congressional district – Texas’ 34th – might actually swing more in Democrats’ favor, says Juan Carlos Huerta, a political science professor at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. Huerta tells Texas Standard that even with a possible special election coming up to fill the seat soon to be vacated by Congressman Filemon Vela, Republicans still might struggle to hold onto the seat in the November general election. Listen to the interview with Huerta in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Texas Standard: What do you see as the likely reasoning behind Congressman Vela’s early departure?

Juan Carlos Huerta: Well, I mean, if you got an opportunity for employment, a chance to take off and move along, that could be the reason. You know, I hate to try to think about exactly what someone is thinking because I don’t know that, but that would be my best guess. It’s an opportunity here, and why stick around when you’ve got this opportunity?

Vela had made the decision earlier not to run for reelection. Could you say a little bit more about his decision, and how politics seems to be changing in South Texas?

You got to keep in mind that a lot of these districts in South Texas have been redrawn, and this district here, for all I’ve read, has, it’s become more Democratic. You know, people have a certain cycle they want to spend in Congress, and we’ll see what the reasoning was for why he chose not to run again.

But again, this district, I mean, this one, more than likely, is a safer Democratic seat. And I think there’s other districts in South Texas that are become more competitive that this one. It’s kind of, by all indications, Democrats will be more likely to keep this one than others.

The National Republican Congressional Committee called Vela’s early exit the latest sign that Texas has become a top battleground for Republicans. But you don’t see that in this district?

Not so much in this district. Again, it was redrawn in a way so it’s the northern parts of it are no longer there. So it had stretched up more going north of Corpus Christi, heading toward Austin, and now it isn’t anymore. So again, when you look at the numbers of how this one’s been done, it’s actually become a bit more Democratic.

One thing I’ll say to you is when when we hear comments from local parties about opportunities, they’re always really bullish on what their chances are. So I think it’s important that we have independent analysis of these things because parties and elected officials from those parties are always going be talking about, Oh, this is great. Of course we’re going to win; we got all this stuff going in our favor.

What are the options for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott? He can call a special election as long as it’s at least 36 days ahead of time. But doesn’t he have to call it on a uniform election date, which just leaves May 7 and  Nov. 8?

We do have those uniform election laws in the state, and governors can use emergency powers to have special elections at different dates so that we do see special elections held at different times.

What we may see happen with this one – [let’s say he picks] June 15 – well, no one else is really focused on the election that day. These can be very low-turnout elections. There are no primaries; all the candidates run together. You have to get a majority. So if there’s not a majority, there will be a runoff.

And so, it could be the Republicans win this if there’s an election over the summer. But holding on to it in November, it’s going to be a very different operation.

Mayra Flores, the current Republican nominee for the district in November’s general election, made clear she will run in this special election. But the current Democratic nominee is the incumbent in the neighboring 15th Congressional District, Vicente Gonzalez, who said he’s not going to run if a special election is called. What could that mean for Democrats?

I think for long term, it probably won’t make that big a difference because I mean, yes, the Republicans, have a decent chance of winning if this special election is held. But again, it’s going to be for a few months, and then you can have a reconstituted district that’s soon to become more Democratic-leaning.

This story has been update to clarify that Vela was never going to run in a special election because that election, if it occurs, would be to fill the seat he is expected to vacate.

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