When Eddie Lucio Jr. entered the Texas Senate in 1991, he was not fond of being the body’s only representative from the Rio Grande Valley. He envisioned instead two Valley-anchored districts, one situated in its western areas and the other closer to its eastern coastline. In redistricting a decade later, he got his wish when a neighboring district was redrawn to include more of the Valley’s booming cities, effectively doubling the region’s Senate representation.
Reflecting recently on his 35-year tenure in Austin, split between the state House and Senate, Lucio told me he had sought to unify and amplify the RGV’s political power at the Capitol. “Even though you have two Senate seats and two districts,” he said, “we’re still one Rio Grande Valley.”
Now, as Lucio retires with his own district reshaped, his notion of a united Valley is being challenged on several fronts, with multiple candidates aiming to assert control over the post-Lucio landscape. The turbulent race to succeed the Brownsville Democrat, who has been the most conservative member of his party’s caucus in the Senate, has the potential to redefine what it means to be a member of the party in South Texas today.
Lucio kept his seat in 2020 after fending off a primary challenge from the progressive Sara Stapleton-Barrera, who took him to a runoff, and then beating his Republican opponent by thirty points in the general election. But that same year Donald Trump won a greater share of Latinos’ votes along the Texas border than he had four years earlier, in some areas notching double-digit improvements. Emboldened by the rightward shift, Republican state leaders have tried to cement and build on Trump’s gains by refashioning Lucio’s Senate District 27 to bolster their party’s chances.
In the new maps, which Texas is defending in a voting rights lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, Senate District 27 has lost southern urban centers such as Pharr and parts of McAllen, while gaining more rural areas farther north. The new district stretches along Texas’s Gulf Coast, from Brownsville to Beeville more than 170 miles away. In 2020, Joe Biden won the Twenty-seventh by nearly sixteen percentage points; the district’s population of eligible voters was then 86 percent Hispanic. Had the redesigned district been in effect in 2020—with the share of Hispanic residents dropping to 78 percent, according to the Texas Tribune—Biden would have carried it by only five points.
The inclusion of Bee, Nueces, and San Patricio counties has made for a more crowded GOP primary than usual in these parts: Adam Hinojosa, a Corpus Christi small-business owner who declined to be interviewed, and Israel Salinas, a San Patricio County Parks Department employee, are both vying for the nomination. Front-runner Raul Torres, a Corpus Christi accountant and former one-term Texas House member, has attracted several high-profile supporters in Austin. While he wouldn’t name them, he said major Republican officeholders have promised to back him if he prevails in the March 1 primary, which would mark one of the state GOP’s most vigorous efforts yet in South Texas. “All of them told me, ‘We need you,’” Torres said.
More than just energizing the Republican side of the ballot, the district’s new competitiveness has also created a Democratic primary with candidates offering a considerable diversity of ideologies, in a region whose modern politics is not known for that quality. The four Democratic candidates are striving to maintain their partisan affiliations up to a point, but they are approaching party loyalty with caution. Each one is campaigning as an independent decision-maker or a political outsider whose victory, to varying degrees, would amount to a departure from the Lucio status quo.
With Lucio absent, the only officeholder in the race is state representative Alex Dominguez, a former Cameron County commissioner and prosecutor who has served two terms in the House. Dominguez credits Lucio for having an impressive legislative record, but their voting histories diverge sharply on issues including abortion bans and charter-school expansion. Lucio’s long-standing support for both policies, which have animated Texas Republicans like few other issues in recent decades, alienated him from traditionally Democratic-leaning groups that are now trying to make up for lost time. Dominguez, who arrived in Austin after defeating an incumbent who had been arrested for drunk driving, is the pick of the Texas AFL-CIO and the Texas State Employees Union, and other labor groups.
Dominguez has pointedly positioned himself as a “real Democrat” in television ads, saying the district could fall to Republicans unless the party nominates someone who can hold the base. He told me the “real Democrat” label does not necessarily refer to Lucio, or to others in the race. What he means, he said, is anybody with whom Democrats would “have a hard time believing in their sincerity and their willingness to stay a Democrat.” Referencing a conservative Rio Grande City lawmaker and former Democrat who joined the GOP in the fall of 2021 ahead of his reelection bid, he asked, “Will they switch parties like Ryan Guillen did? Will they vote with Republicans if it suits their financial interests?”
That question hangs over the campaign of Morgan LaMantia, a Valley attorney who is employed by her family’s company, L&F Distributors. Owners of one of the largest beverage distributors along the border, the LaMantias are prodigious donors to candidates of both parties at every level of government. By the close of 2021, LaMantia reported $750,000 in loans from three family members for her campaign.
Recipients of Morgan LaMantia’s recent contributions include many in the chamber she is seeking election to, including Democrat senator Nathan Johnson of Dallas and Republican senator and candidate for land commissioner Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway. (LaMantia’s uncle, Greg LaMantia, has also given to Dominguez in the past.)
Morgan LaMantia maintains that her contributions to Democratic officeholders outnumber those to Republicans, and that they reflect the needs of her family’s business. “I gave money to people who I felt were in line with my views and our interests, and to some degree, a lot of those interests came down to business decisions as well,” she said, adding that she thought her private-sector experience was more important to voters than criticisms about party loyalty.
Despite her previous contributions to Republicans, LaMantia, who calls herself a “different Democrat,” is the favorite of others in the local Democratic establishment. Several Democrats in the Rio Grande Valley delegation have shunned their colleague Dominguez to back her, including state representatives Armando Martinez of Weslaco and Terry Canales of Edinburg. They’ve cited LaMantia’s business experience as a plus, but the other candidates in the race aren’t buying that reasoning. “How many more thousands are they going to get from that family? I guess we’ll find out in their next campaign finance report,” Dominguez said.
Endorsing her in January, Lucio said he thinks LaMantia may be less beholden to state and federal Democratic platforms than her challengers. But he bristled at the charge that he, or LaMantia by extension, are not “real Democrats.” “He’s already making his mind up that he’s going to be a Democrat no matter what,” Lucio said, referring to Dominguez. “He’s going to stick to what the party tells him to do at the state or federal level.”
For Lucio, supporting LaMantia is part of a personal belief that District 27’s vote should remain up for grabs—senators in both parties should have to work to win it over. LaMantia supports Medicaid expansion to cover uninsured Texans and wants to promote employment opportunities so South Texans do not need to leave the region for well-paying jobs—two policy areas that have attracted Lucio’s focus for several sessions and require sustained bipartisanship, he said. On other issues, however, she would mark a departure from Lucio: LaMantia said at a candidate forum in late January that she would have voted against Republicans’ six-week abortion ban last year, which Lucio supported.
The two other Democratic candidates offer diametrically opposed visions for what the party needs to remain dominant in South Texas. Salomon Torres, a Harlingen business consultant who is considered a long shot, is the most openly conservative candidate and sees his candidacy as an updated viability test for Blue Dog politics in the new district, particularly around police funding and abortion restrictions. While he personally opposes the procedure and vows not to support sending state funds to clinics that provide it, Torres supports a person’s right to choose to terminate their pregnancy. “I’m supportive of spending resources on health care for women but not the actual procedure, so I’ll probably be the only Democrat with that position,” he said.
On the other side of the spectrum is liberal attorney Sara Stapleton-Barrera of Brownsville, who pushed Lucio into his first-ever runoff in 2020 after he narrowly failed to win the primary outright. Outspent 13-to-1, Stapleton-Barrera used the runoff to rally the district’s progressive and younger voters, whose opposition to Lucio’s conservatism has prompted more local organizing of late. With South Texas communities’ history of labor and civil rights activism, organizers in the Valley see progressive candidates as having more potential to be broadly appealing than conservatives. Stapleton-Barrera’s bid in 2020 won the backing of groups like Planned Parenthood Texas Votes and the civil liberties–focused Texas Freedom Network PAC, and this year she has the support of climate activist organizations.
Even as the candidates pursue different paths to the nomination, they know they’ll need once-reliable Lucio voters to win. Stapleton-Barrera recalled recently meeting a longtime probation officer who voted against her in the 2020 runoff because she felt Lucio was personally accountable to her. “She said, ‘The reason I did was because I was able to call [Lucio]. I had his cellphone number in my phone after all these years. I didn’t know you, so I didn’t vote for you,’” Stapleton-Barrera recounted. “She and I spent a good thirty minutes talking about issues, really hashing some stuff out. By the end of it, she had my cellphone number in her phone, and we texted the very same evening.”