The Rio Grande Valley, the border region comprising Texas’ southern tip that some 1.4 million residents call home, is known for a certain brand of politics. Essentially a one-party territory, Valley Democrats typically coast on low voter turnout through November elections. The winners are often referred to as “South Texas Democrats”—which is to say, conservatives on issues ranging from guns to fossil fuels to abortion. Though not unique to the border, the area regularly hosts family dynasties and public corruption. Now, this political status quo appears in flux; with surprise retirements, redrawn political maps, and insurgents from both right and left, Valley politics look rife with possibility.
“It’s exciting times; it’s like a crossroads,” said Danny Diaz, organizing director at LUPE Votes, an organization cultivating candidates in the Valley to run on a Bernie Sanders-esque platform. “We’re trying to break through that mold of traditional establishment Democrats down here.”
Diaz’s organization is targeting a McAllen-based congressional seat, which is being vacated by Democratic incumbent Vicente Gonzalez after Republicans redrew the district to be more conservative. Gonzalez is now running in a neighboring U.S House district to succeed five-term incumbent Filemon Vela, who’s retiring. In Brownsville, the Lucios—a long-serving father-son duo—are stepping down too, freeing up a state Senate and state House seat. Upriver, Congressman Henry Cuellar, who represents a western chunk of the Valley, is facing a tough primary and an apparent FBI investigation, and 10-term state House member Ryan Guillen switched parties from Democrat to Republican in November.
Amid all the change, the Valley is seeing an unprecedented crop of viable women candidates running in both parties. Some 60 years ago, Latinos began replacing Anglos in many of the region’s elected offices, but the representatives have been overwhelmingly men. Next year, it’s conceivable that women could hold all three congressional seats covering the Valley, and the Brownsville state Senate seat—a potential first in all cases.
Republicans, typically a non-factor outside of some local races, will be fighting hard for Valley voters too after the area swung toward Trump in his second presidential bid.
In November 2020, turnout rates in the Valley rose to levels not seen in 30 years. Typically, Democrats expect to benefit from a boost in Latino voting, and Joe Biden did win the Valley by about 15 points, carrying both urban counties, Hidalgo and Cameron, and both rural counties, Starr and Willacy. But just four years prior, Hillary Clinton had won the region by more than twice Biden’s margin. This trend, of Trump outperforming 2016, played out all along Texas’ 1,254-mile border.
The 2020 results set off a frenzy of national media attention, as reporters and pundits leaped to ask how so many Hispanics could defect to such an openly xenophobic president. Some headlines exaggerated the results, implying Trump had won the Texas border; some stories trumpeted Trump’s victory in Zapata County, downplaying that it accounted for less than 4,000 total votes; and a number of journalists failed to fact-check basic aspects of local geography. Nevertheless, a real shift did occur, one that should concern Texas Democrats, who’ve long pinned their statewide hopes on supermajority Latino backing.
Explanations vary for Trump’s 2020 bump, and there’s evidence available for politicos of all stripes to make their case. Perhaps a more progressive nominee like Bernie Sanders, who carried every populous Texas border county in the primary, would have performed better. Maybe the GOP finally tapped into a population more attuned to their messages on the oil industry, religion, and law enforcement. Or perhaps it was just Trump’s attention-grabbing personality—after all, many Trump voters selected Democrats down-ballot. Most observers, though, agree on one thing: Dems largely got the grade they earned. Leery of COVID-19, the party eschewed crucial in-person door-knocking, and the Biden campaign never prioritized the region anyway.
“Democrats spent almost no money in the Valley talking to Latinos while the Republicans were organizing on the ground through the Libre Initiative and through other organizations,” said political consultant Chuck Rocha, exaggerating somewhat. President of the consulting firm Solidarity Strategies, Rocha worked on Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign and is working for a number of Texas candidates this cycle. “You reporters, you ideologues, you people who don’t run campaigns, you think it’s about the candidate’s message; the candidate’s message don’t matter a fuck if you’re not spending money to go tell voters.”
Whatever the cause of Trump’s support, the GOP hopes to prove it wasn’t a one-off event. Governor Greg Abbott announced his reelection bid in McAllen—one of numerous visits he’s made to the region, invariably to scaremonger about refugees—and his campaign has said he hopes to win the Texas Latino vote this year. The Republican National Committee has set up a Hispanic community center in McAllen. The local GOP maintains a “strike force” to phonebank and knock doors, and the party hosts a suite of regular events including law enforcement appreciation days and toy and coat drives.
“When I first said I was Republican back in 2011-12, I lost friends and people thought I was crazy,” said Adrienne Peña-Garza, chair of the Hidalgo County GOP and daughter of Aaron Peña, a former state representative who switched from Democrat to Republican a decade ago. “Now people are asking us: ‘When’s your next Lincoln-Reagan Dinner? When’s your next Get out the Vote event? When’s your next Guns and Cake event?’”
Plenty of conservative Democrats are appealing to Valley voters this year, too, setting up at least three electoral paths forward. Two races, in particular, serve as microcosms of the region’s political moment.
CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT 15
CD-15 is a tall candlestick of a district stretching from the Rio Grande to the outskirts of San Antonio, with its heart in the McAllen-metro, the Valley’s biggest urban center. In last year’s redistricting, the Legislature rejiggered CD-15 to include more of rural western Hidalgo County, changing it from a district that Trump lost by two points to one he would have won by two. That revision sent the incumbent congressman, Democrat Vicente Gonzalez—who won reelection in 2020 by a scant three points—scurrying east to run in a neighboring district that covers Brownsville, the Valley’s other major city. In its 120-year history, the seat has never been held by a Republican. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/embed/mapframe?state=tx&district=15&bounds=-100.726,30.109,-95.803,25.748
Monica De La Cruz, an insurance agent and the Republican who nearly toppled Gonzalez last election, is running again this year with the backing of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Despite some bad headlines stemming from a messy divorce, De La Cruz’s fundraising remains robust: Last year, she pulled in some $1.5 million. Her closest competitor, Mauro Garza, the owner of a gay nightclub in San Antonio who’s making his third bid for Congress, raised half a million, with the rest of the field lagging much farther behind.
In a recent forum, it was hard to distinguish between the messages of the Republican candidates for CD-15, who all said they were running primarily to address border security. But De La Cruz may have topped them all in message discipline. Asked how she would address the Valley’s disproportionate rates of diabetes and other preexisting conditions that have helped make COVID so fatal in the region, De La Cruz replied without missing a beat: “Number one … our medical hospitals, our doctors, are being clogged again by the illegal immigration that is happening here.”
On the other side, a scrum of Democrats are scrambling to build name recognition and play financial catchup. Two men aiming for the centrist lane lead the pack financially according to the most recent filings: John Villarreal Rigney, with $150,000 that he loaned himself, and Ruben Ramirez with just over $100K. Eliza Alvarado, who previously worked for Congressman Ruben Hinojosa and both DHR Health, the influential Valley hospital network, and its political arm the Border Health PAC, ended last year with $75,000.
Michelle Vallejo, who co-owns a flea market in the McAllen-area, is running as perhaps the most progressive of the serious candidates. Vallejo, who reported raising $66,000, was recruited by LUPE Votes, a new spinoff 501(c)(4) of La Union Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a longstanding community organization in the Valley that fights for things like farmworker protections and infrastructure in colonias. The turn toward direct political campaign work is new for the organization, making Vallejo’s run as much a personal test as a test of LUPE’s ability to become a consistent force pushing South Texas politics left. Vallejo has adopted LUPE’s platform, which includes Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and an anti-war foreign policy.
“I would not be where I am without LUPE,” Vallejo said, noting the group has 6,000-8,000 members in the 15th. “I think traditionally these races are based on who has the most purchasing power when it comes to mailers, signs, and media, and I’m so grateful that for my campaign that’s not the only thing we’re focusing on, and I love that it started with the energy of having a ground game.”
Whoever emerges from the CD-15 primaries will find themselves part of a national fight for control of the U.S. House in November, as Democrats struggle to defend their meager majority against a Republican offensive.
STATE SENATE DISTRICT 27
For three decades, voters in the Brownsville-based SD-27 have sent Democrat Eddie Lucio Jr. to represent them in the Texas Capitol’s east wing. A bête noire for the party’s liberals, Lucio rose to power by successfully primarying incumbent Democrats from the right. He championed tort reform, a movement that successfully cut the fundraising legs out from fellow Dems by defanging trial lawyers; he consistently voted against organized labor, reproductive healthcare, and LGBTQ rights; with some frequency, he provided the GOP an extra needed vote. Nevertheless, no Democrat could oust him, and he retires this year of his own volition to attend to family matters.
Three serious Democratic contenders are vying for the chance to succeed Lucio: Sara Stapleton Barrera, a trial lawyer who pushed Lucio to a runoff in 2020; Alex Dominguez, a current state representative; and Morgan LaMantia, the scion of a local and politically connected beer dynasty. In November, Lucio told the Observer that he hoped his successor would share his anti-abortion views. Barring an unlikely Republican upset, that won’t happen: All three Dem candidates are pro-choice and support LGBTQ rights.
Nevertheless, Lucio has picked a horse. “I will be supporting and endorsing Morgan Lamantia. I’ve known their family for years and years; her grandfather was on my campaign committee back in 1990,” he told the Observer in a phone call. Asked about LaMantia’s pro-choice views, Lucio replied: “It’s a very important issue, but I guess I’m old-fashioned, me gusta devolver la copa—in other words, when somebody helps you, gives you a good turn, you return the favor—the LaMantia family has always been with me.”
“I want somebody that has compassion for people—especially the unborn,” said Eddie Lucio of his eventual replacement.
by Gus Bova
LaMantia, an attorney who’s never held public office, is the in-house counsel for her family’s Anheuser Busch wholesaler L&F Distributors. LaMantia has swiftly taken a commanding fundraising lead, pulling in more contributions than either of her opponents, along with receiving $1.25 million in family loans since November—an intimidating haul for a state Senate race. Her contributions include $25,000 from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a pro-tort reform group that also backed Lucio, along with thousands from the beer lobby and $1,000 from Energy Transfer Partners, the 2021 Texas freeze’s biggest profiteer. In the past, LaMantia has donated to both Democrats and Republicans.
“I respect a lot of things Senator Lucio has done, especially bringing a medical school down here,” Lamantia told the Observer. “But I have my own perspective … investing in our public schools, raising teacher pay, respecting the autonomy of women.”
At least five state House members from the Valley have endorsed LaMantia, a surprising snub of state Rep. Dominguez, given that Texas legislators usually stick clannishly together when one of their own seeks higher office. Dominguez, a fairly standard-issue Democrat, climbed from Cameron County commissioner to the state House in 2018 and was considering a run for Congress last year until Congressman Gonzalez jumped over to the Brownsville-based district that Dominguez would have sought. In the meantime, Dominguez found his home drawn out of his current state House district during redistricting. Now, he’s fighting to avoid falling out of public office altogether.
Stapleton Barrera likely occupies the race’s leftmost lane. She opposes a trio of liquefied natural gas projects in the Brownsville-area that Dominguez backed, and she’s an open critic of the tort reformers that support both Lucio and LaMantia. In 2020, she nearly toppled Lucio in the runoff, despite raising very little money outside of some loans from her husband. This year, her fundraising looks the same, and without Lucio on the ballot, her campaign is drawing less attention from statewide pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ groups. But she should at least have name recognition from her prior run. “Back in 2020, nobody was willing to take on the biggest and the baddest senator in the State of Texas,” she told the Observer. “And I was really just a nobody that had the courage to do it, and that’s what we need.”
The three candidates occupy distinct ideological lanes—”a great reflection of the party as a whole,” said Rocha, who’s consulting for Dominguez—but the election of any one would constitute a major break from the Catholic-reactionary social views of Lucio.
For Monica Clua Losada, a political science professor at UT-RGV, the Valley’s 2022 political shakeup is symptomatic of deeper changes.
“There’s kind of a tradition of considering politics something that’s just been done by a few people … like 30 Valley families control everything,” she said. “That is now being put in jeopardy because there’s a new generation coming through who also want to have a say, and part of that comes also from the rapid socioeconomic development of this place particularly since NAFTA.”
Since 1990, the Valley has doubled in population, and the import-export industry swelled after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. The creation of UT-RGV and the expansion of the healthcare sector have incentivized college-bound locals to stay in the area and attracted educated migrants. At the same time, jobs in law enforcement have exploded: The Border Patrol has quintupled in size in 30 years, and the Valley hosts cops of all varieties on various border security assignments. In a still-poor region, the Border Patrol offers a quick path to middle-class wages, and lately the agency’s union has become an active backer of Trumpian candidates.
“We are seeing particularly in the last few years law enforcement is acquiring a very particular type of political consciousness, one that is, at the most innocent level, ‘Blue Lives Matter,’ but at other levels is perhaps more far-right,” Clua Losada said. It may seem contradictory—Clua Losada describes the Valley as the type of place where Border Patrol agents employ undocumented maids—but many locals are now materially invested in border militarization and a right-wing agenda.
The Rio Grande Valley has generally backed Democrats since the 19th century. There have been exceptions—the Bushes sometimes fared quite well—but they’re rare. This means the region backed the party in both its Southern segregationist and post-civil rights phases, both when the area was run by Anglo political machines and in recent decades. Texas Democrats have long assumed better turnout in the Valley would benefit their side; 2020 has cast that into doubt. The GOP relishes the thought of flipping a seat or two in the area, not just for practical vote-counting reasons but also to prove symbolically that their political brand appeals to Hispanics.
With its blend of rural and urban areas and distinct history, the Valley can’t really be lumped into a monolithic “Latino vote,” or even combined with the rest of the Texas border. But its nearly 1.5 million voters are a crucial ingredient in any statewide political calculus. This year, the region could redefine what a “South Texas Democrat” looks like, or a South Texas Republican for that matter. All Texans may want to pay attention.