When Mayra Flores won a special congressional election Tuesday, she made history in more than one way. In Washington, D.C., she’ll be the first woman born in Mexico to serve as a Republican in Congress. She’s also helped the GOP secure its most-desired dream for this year in South Texas: for the first time since Reconstruction, a Republican will represent the Rio Grande Valley in Congress.
The GOP has spent much of the past year trumpeting its ascendance in South Texas, ever since Donald Trump’s shocking success in the counties that stretch from Laredo all the way down the Rio Grande Valley to the Gulf. Between 2016 and 2020, Trump improved his performance in some of these counties, traditionally Democratic strongholds, by more than 50 percent. But it was hard to know whether voters were actually shifting to the right or whether the forty-fifth president was simply a once-in-a-generation candidate. Even with his success on the top of the ballot, not a single GOP candidate won a congressional race in South Texas in 2020.
Flores put the question to rest on Tuesday. For a GOP desperate to prove it’s not simply the party of non-Hispanic white people, her win in Texas’s Thirty-fourth Congressional District, which spans from Brownsville up the Gulf Coast to the San Antonio exurbs, is of great significance.
But Flores’s win comes with a massive asterisk: in all likelihood, she’ll serve in Congress for only seven months. This was a special election, triggered because of incumbent congressman Filemon Vela’s bumbling retirement. After easily defeating a Republican challenger and winning another term in the Thirty-fourth in 2020, the Democratic congressman announced in 2021 that he would retire after the midterms. That decision likely wasn’t motivated by fear he would lose his seat. During Republican-led redistricting in Texas, the GOP had worked to create a conservative-friendly district in South Texas, but this only made Vela’s seat safer. Targeting the neighboring Fifteenth, Republicans pulled Democratic voters out of that district and packed them into the Thirty-fourth, turning Vela’s seat from one that Biden won by four points to one he would have won by more than sixteen.
Democratic odds in the Thirty-fourth were so favorable that Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, who today represents the Fifteenth, decided to move east and run in Vela’s district after Vela announced his retirement. The challenge by Flores, a local health-care worker, seemed hopeless. She was running a scrappy campaign, building off her success as a popular and pugnacious right-wing influencer with tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and Facebook, who follow her for her hard-line stances on immigration and militarizing the border. But Gonzalez raised close to $2 million more than she did, and had the structural advantage in a district that went overwhelmingly for Biden.
Then Vela made a second retirement announcement, stating that he wouldn’t wait until January 2023 to step down but instead would leave in June 2022 to join Akin Gump, a law firm that’s the largest lobbying group in the country. That triggered the special election, which was competitive because it was held under the 2020 district lines.
Flores was quick to adapt. “I am going to run in the special election and I’m going to win that race,” she told me mere hours after Vela’s announcement. Democrats, however, were left in disarray: Gonzalez couldn’t run against Flores in the special election. He was already in Congress, and leaving his current seat would simply trigger another special election in his district. Dan Sanchez, a former Democratic county commissioner in Cameron County, home to Brownsville, announced he would run. But he was at an immediate disadvantage. While Flores already had a campaign up and running for her November race, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, Sanchez had to start his effort entirely from scratch.
Flores had another advantage as well. The state and national Republican parties have come out gunning on her behalf. Even though the special election is largely symbolic—the winner will serve only until January, when the victor of the November election between Flores and Gonzalez will take over—that symbolism is powerful for Republicans. “There’s no better candidate than Mayra Flores to help deliver the first devastating blow to the Biden-Pelosi agenda and kick off the Red Tsunami that will sweep across Southern Texas,” congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York, chair of the House Republican Conference, wrote in a statement in April.
Winning a district that’s more than 80 percent Hispanic, with a candidate who was born in Mexico and worked the cotton fields in her youth, could do big things for the Republican party. To win national elections, Democrats need around 70 percent of Hispanic voters to cast ballots for them. If Republicans can succeed in convincing even a modest percentage of those Hispanic voters that they have a place in the party, the GOP could build a firewall between Democrats and the White House. A successful candidate such as Flores is not just a symbol for the party, she also could help the GOP craft its message for a community she knows intimately. And other Texas Republicans might benefit from her success, which will help attract more political money to the region. All of this is why Governor Abbott, busy running his own election bid, has gone out of his way to campaign for Flores, as have countless other Republicans—both electeds and donors.
Now that Flores has won, you can expect to hear her name a lot more. While she won under unusual circumstances, she still beat Sanchez handily. With more than 95 percent of the vote in, she led by 51 to 43 percent—enough to avoid a runoff and cement her as the new face of the Hispanic conservative movement in South Texas.