Just two weeks ago, Democrats looked likely to cruise to victory this November in Texas’s Thirty-fourth Congressional District. From fishermen and rocket scientists in Brownsville to ranchers and oil field workers southeast of San Antonio, most voters in the district have voted blue for as long as it has existed. Even after incumbent representative Filemon Vela announced last year that he would retire from Congress after his term ends, Democrats had an easy replacement: Representative Vicente Gonzalez, of the next-door Fifteenth district, who decided to run in the Thirty-fourth after his McAllen neighborhood was redistricted into Vela’s turf.
Then, late last month, Vela made another retirement announcement. Instead of waiting until the end of his term to vacate his seat, he announced his resignation, effective immediately. “I’m just ready to go,” Vela, who declined a request for an interview with Texas Monthly, told a reporter. Vela won’t be between jobs for long—or, actually, for any time at all. He’s already committed to work as an attorney for Akin Gump, a law firm that’s the largest lobbying group in the U.S.
While Vela will exit through the well-oiled revolving door between Congress and the lawyer-lobbying industry, the transition might not prove as smooth for the Democrats left trying to fill his seat. On Monday, Governor Greg Abbott officially announced a June 14 special election in the Thirty-fourth until the new Congress is sworn in in January. Democrats were in disarray, with no clear candidate to run in the race: Gonzalez won’t abandon his current congressional post to run in this special election (leaving his own seat would simply trigger another special election, after all). Dan Sanchez, a former Democratic county commissioner for Cameron County, whose seat is Brownsville, threw his hat in the ring Tuesday morning, but he’ll have to start a campaign entirely from scratch. Republicans suddenly have a real shot at picking up a seat that should have been unwinnable for them.
To understand why Vela’s early resignation is a boost for the Republicans, let’s zoom out for a second. After former president Donald Trump’s unexpected gains in South Texas in 2020, Republicans have pushed a key narrative: that the GOP is starting to win over Hispanic voters. But even with Trump’s remarkable improvement in the region, Republicans have yet to flip any congressional seats in South Texas. This year, they’re investing heavily to turn Trump’s gains into an actual Republican win.
The district the GOP initially had in its crosshairs is the Fifteenth, which is anchored in McAllen. Republicans in the Texas Legislature used the redistricting process last year to siphon majority-Democratic towns and counties out of Gonzalez’s district, changing it from slightly blue into a district that would have voted for Trump by a few percentage points in 2020. The tradeoff was that it deposited those Democratic voters into the neighboring Thirty-fourth, the seat Vela is vacating, which went from a district Biden won by four points in 2020 to one he would have won by a sixteen.
In other words, Republicans were glad to let Democrats win by a larger margin in the Thirty-fourth, as the price for giving their candidate a better shot in the Fifteenth. But now they might have a chance to have their cake and eat it too. While the winner of the upcoming special election will serve just a few months before the general election in November, Republicans have homed in on this bizarre double election as a chance to pull off a coup in a Democratic district. They have a unique advantage, because the special election will use the old lines of the Thirty-fourth, not the super-Democratic new version. A Republican victory, however short-lived, could prove enormously useful for the GOP in Texas and nationally: they’d finally have a Mexican American member of Congress from South Texas. And even though the winner of the special election will have to run again in November, she would suddenly be buoyed by all the benefits that incumbency offers—an office on Capitol Hill, the label “Representative” on campaign literature, and the resources of a party dedicated to protecting its own.
Conversely, the benefit of incumbency that would have helped the Democrats in November has proved a hindrance now that there’s a special election. The party’s current nominee in the November race for the Thirty-fourth, Gonzalez, is already serving in Congress in the Fifteenth. “I intend to represent present-day TX-15 until the end of my term, but will support efforts to get a good Democrat to fill the seat in the interim in the event of a special election,” he said shortly after Vela’s announcement. “I will be on the ballot for the newly drawn TX-34 in November.”
Gonzalez’s GOP opponent in November isn’t in the same bind. Earlier this month, Mayra Flores—a local health-care worker who is also a popular conservative social media influencer—won the Republican primary in the Thirty-fourth. She is clear about her intentions now that the seat will be vacated early. “I am going to run in the special election and I’m going to win that race,” she told me.
A Flores victory in June, even if she then loses in November, could prove a powerful symbol for the GOP. Flores is an immigrant, the daughter of Mexican farm workers, and she’s married to a Border Patrol agent. As she proudly proclaims, she would be the first woman born in Mexico to serve as a Republican in Congress. She’s also comfortably positioned in the party’s right wing. She wants a total ban on abortion. She has endorsed Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. And she is hawkish on blocking undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers. In an Instagram post in February, she argued that the troops Biden was sending to the Ukraine border should have been sent to the U.S.-Mexico border. “Democrats right now here in South Texas, they don’t speak about our border crisis,” she told me when we chatted earlier this year. “They’re not standing with our Border Patrol agents. They’re not standing with our law enforcement. They’re completely quiet.”
Before Vela announced his early resignation, Flores was running a near-hopeless race against Gonzalez. Besides the strong Democratic majority in the new Thirty-fourth, her obstacles included Gonzalez outraising her by more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions. Even though Republicans are investing heavily in South Texas, most of their support has bypassed Flores, going instead to Monica De La Cruz, who is running a more competitive race in the Fifteenth. In 2020, De La Cruz, a local insurance agent, rode on Trump’s coattails and came within a few points of unseating Gonzalez. This year, she has raised close to $2 million, with endorsements from Trump and Republican senator Ted Cruz. Flores, by contrast, had raised barely $200,000 before Vela’s announcement and lacked high-profile endorsements.
In the special election, however, the fact that Flores already has a campaign up and running and money in the bank gives her a serious advantage. National Republicans have taken notice. Flores said that soon after Vela went public with his early resignation, she fielded calls from the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as high-powered conservative donors from around the country. She says their message to her was simple: The cavalry is on its way.
This puts Democrats in a bind. The national party is focused on holding onto its majority in Congress. Today, it has to decide if it’s worth spending to contest a special election that won’t affect the House balance of power next year. Because Gonzalez still looks likely to win in November, the party may decide to save resources for competitive races that month. Sanchez, the former Cameron County commissioner, received support from both Gonzalez and Vela when he announced he will run in the special election. However, he might have to face Flores without significant financial support from the national Democratic party. (The special election will have no primary, so it’s also possible that other Democrats and Republicans will enter the free-for-all race.)
Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the party remains confident about its chances in November. “A Democrat will be sworn in to represent Texas’s Thirty-fourth Congressional District in January 2023,” Robinson said. “If the Republican Party wants to light their money on fire for a seat that is completely out of their reach come November, we warmly invite them to do so.”
That said, some local Democrats in the district admit that, even though they admire Vela and respect his decision to do what’s best for him and his family, they feel that the congressman abandoned them. “I certainly wish that [Vela] had continued with his term,” said Jared Hockema, the chair of the Democratic party in Cameron County. He stressed that he thinks a Democrat, such as Sanchez, will win the special election, but added that he still feels let down. “Anytime you vote for someone, you vote for them to fill out their term. So the fact that he’s not continuing in the seat he was elected to, of course it’s disappointing for us.”
Others in the Thirty-fourth worried that Vela’s resignation will give a boost to Flores. “During his time in office, Congressman Filemon Vela has been a strong voice for border communities and building bridges of friendship rather than walls of hate and fear,” said Daniel Diaz, the director of organizing for LUPE (La Union de Pueblo Entero), a South Texas advocacy group founded by legendary farm-labor organizers Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. “That is why we are disappointed that he has chosen to abandon his post early. His decision could cede ground to the handful of politicians who use border communities as a political football to exploit our differences and block progress on immigration and asylum.”
For now, the attack ads write themselves for the GOP. “Filemon Vela is abandoning us while we have a crisis on our border and families can’t afford groceries and gas,” Flores said in a statement soon after Vela announced his early resignation. “I will never abandon our community and will absolutely be a candidate in any special election for Texas’ 34th District.”
Update 12:25 p.m.: This article has been updated to include Democrat Dan Sanchez’s recent announcement that he will run in the special election. When the article was published, no Democrat had yet announced a candidacy.