AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Cameron County, Texas, sits on the southernmost tip of the state, sandwiched between the Mexican Border and the Gulf. It has long been a Democratic stronghold. On Tuesday night, voters went to the polls in a special election to replace Democrat Congressman Filemon Vela Jr. of the 34th Congressional District, who had resigned. By a margin of 7% points, they elected a young Hispanic Republican woman named Mayra Flores. Flores became the first Republican ever to represent the district after Fila had won the seat by 14% less than two years before.
While George W. Bush narrowly won Cameron County in 2004, 50.32% to 49.16%, this was an outlier. John McCain took only 35% in 2008, Romney 34% in 2012, and Donald Trump 32% in 2016. In 2020, however, Trump seemed to begin to reverse the trend significantly: he lost the county by “only” 56%-43%, as part of his surge among blue-collar Hispanic voters around the country.
Democrats hoped Trump’s 2020 gains would be a one-off. They appear to have been badly mistaken.
Former Obama pollster David Shor was quick to warn: “If you look at things like the Texas local elections, the New Jersey elections, Nassau County elections, the Virginia elections, they all point to Hispanics not just not snapping back but continuing to get more Republican in relative terms than they were before.”
Texas’s 34th Congressional District is ground-zero for these shifts. The district is one of the most heavily Hispanic in the nation, with 85% of the population citing Hispanic or Latino ancestry, according to the 2010 census. There is little basis for Democrats to blame “white backlash” or “racism” for losses when less than 12% of the population identified primarily as white, nor were BLM issues paramount when African Americans made up a mere 1.4% of the population.
The county is quite poor, with 22% of families and almost one in four individuals living below the poverty line in 2019. In effect, it is exactly the sort of seat you would expect to have voted for Democrats a decade ago. And if there is one statistic we have learned to look out for to figure out why a district is no longer voting for Democrats today: a mere 15.9% of adults held bachelor’s degrees or higher. When we consider these trends, and the wider ones in American politics, what happened in the 34th is not a surprise. And that is exactly why it should terrify Democrats.
As Eric Garcia, a Hispanic Democratic commentator, warned on election night, “There is a political earthquake happening in Latino politics in South Texas and there is a reason I have been saying it will be voting like West Virginia.”
A chart of the 34th district’s voting history shows the reason for the panic.
|2012||61%-38% Obama||62%-36% Democratic|
|2016||59%-37% Clinton||63%-37% Democratic|
|2020||51% – 47% Biden||55%-42% Democratic|
|2022 special||52.5%-47.5% Republican|
That is not so much a drift as a collapse. Two things are apparent. First, the argument that “Border Latinos simply like incumbents,” which was trotted out to explain Donald Trump’s gains in 2020, is not the case. In fact, Hispanic voters did not just vote GOP once in 2020; they are becoming Republicans. And why not?
The 34th district was among the areas hardest hit both by COVID lockdowns and then by the border crisis. Working class, with a large portion of the population in the service sector, locals had fewer options to work remotely and suffered a greater burden from being unable to send their kids to school. Directly adjacent to the border, they have also suffered directly from the deteriorating security situation, and rather than viewing the border patrol in racial terms, a large majority of officers are locals, which means the Biden Administration has both followed policies which have increased crime and launched direct attacks on those locals who did the most to fight it.
The second thing the trend shows is that Democrats are engaged in some combination of spin or denial when they try and write-off the result, as many have, by arguing there was a deliberate decision to concede the election for a seat which will not exist. The current 34th, which voted for Biden 51%-47% is being replaced with a new seat this November which will be much more Democratic (Biden will have won the new seat 57%-42%), and neighboring Congressman Vincent Gonzalez will be running for it. As they are “guaranteed” to win back the seat in November, Democrats allowed David Sanchez, a Cameron County commissioner, to be outspent nearly 20-1 in the special election.
There is a problem with this confidence. For one thing, Biden will still have done worse in the new seat in 2020 than Hillary Clinton did in the existing seat in 2016, and the same trends are still present. If anything, they are even stronger. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the new 34th district 66%-30%. In 2020 Biden won it 57%-42%. In those four years, Donald Trump gained 12% and Biden lost 9%, compared to 10% and 8% in the old seat. Which makes sense, as the new seat is even more Hispanic, more border-centered, and more blue-collar than the existing one.
The district will also now have something else: a charismatic incumbent in Mayra Flores, who is the first Mexican-born woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. At 36, she is 18 years younger than Gonzalez, who decided to run in the new 34th precisely to avoid having to face a competitive race in his old district after only surviving by 3% in a district Biden won by 2% (Clinton won it by 17%, see a trend?). Flores has a compelling personal story. She immigrated to America with her parents at age six, picked cotton to put herself through school, and worked on the frontlines as a health worker during Covid. A former Democrat, she left over her pro-life convictions, making her a better representative of the voters she wishes to represent in a district where the median age is 33.
She is also riding the wave of the future, one which saw Gonzalez’s home town of McAllen elect a Republican mayor this February. McAllen, like the new 34th, is 85% Hispanic, and voted for Joe Biden by 17% (as opposed to 15% in the new seat).
The November clash between Flores and Gonzalez, then, will not just be a test of how far the realignment we saw on Tuesday has gone, but also a representation of why it is happening. On one side is the young, charismatic, blue-collar Republican woman. On the other, an aging professional pol who chose to run in a district because he felt he would not have to work. The problem for Democrats is not merely that their excuse for losing the seat this week was that they ran a lazy candidate who they failed to work for. The problem is that their candidate in November is someone similar. It looks increasingly likely that the Hispanic voters of Cameron County and the whole Rio Grande Valley are tired of being taken for granted.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.