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Republicans try to send message to Democrats in Texas special election

By Gregory Krieg, CNN

South Texas returns to the polls on Tuesday for a special election to replace a Democratic House member who resigned earlier this year, setting up a surprisingly expensive race to fill out the remaining months of his term.

Former Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela‘s decision to leave office at the end of March to take a job at a lobbying firm created a scramble for control of the current 34th Congressional District. The seat, which ranges from east of San Antonio down to Brownsville, largely along the Gulf Coast before reaching the US-Mexico border, has been vacant for more than two months and will effectively disappear in the fall, when a redrawn district more friendly to the Democratic nominee, Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who currently represents the 15th Congressional District, comes up for grabs again.

Gonzalez will not be on the ballot this time around. Instead, Democrat Dan Sanchez, the former Cameron County commissioner, is vying for a brief stay on Capitol Hill. His competition — and Gonzalez’s in November — is Republican Mayra Flores. Despite the seemingly low stakes, Republicans have spent big on the race in a bid to cut into the Democratic majority, make a show of strength in the region and provide Flores with some momentum heading into the general election.

Further complicating matters, Flores and Sanchez are not the only two running in the special election. Democrat Rene Coronado and Republican Juana Cantu-Cabrera are also on the ballot, meaning the contest could go to a runoff if none of the candidates win a majority of the votes.

President Joe Biden won the district as it is currently drawn by less than 5 percentage points. After redistricting goes into effect, though, Democrats will face a more advantageous electorate. Given that, national Democrats have mostly steered clear of the special election. Flores has overwhelmingly outraised Sanchez and had, according to a finance report from the end of May, outspent him by a more than 20-to-1 margin.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s House election arm, only dipped into the race earlier this month, when it spent $100,000 on digital ads in the region.

“A Democrat will represent TX-34 in January. If Republicans spend money on a seat that is out of their reach in November, great,” DCCC spokesperson Monica Robinson told CNN, calling Flores “a far-right, MAGA extremist who is completely out of touch with South Texans, so the DCCC is focused on winning seats in November and we are committed to ensuring Hispanic voters get the representation they deserve when Vicente Gonzalez is elected to a full term this fall.”

Though the party remains confident of its position in the fall, Gonzalez has expressed some concern over Tuesday’s contest, telling Politico earlier this month that it would “be a tragedy” if the seat — in the increasingly competitive border region — turns red. Gonzalez did not return a request for comment from CNN.

Despite the flood of cash backing Flores, Sanchez campaign manager Collin Steele, who previously held the same position for Gonzalez, says Sanchez’s history in the district will ultimately be more valuable than GOP spending on the race.

“His support is local. His money’s coming from local sources,” Steele said. “That’s what’ll keep this in a runoff. I would love to win outright, but I think the most realistic outcome is that he’ll overcome that money disadvantage because of those close community ties.”

Republicans, meanwhile, view the race as both an opportunity to build strength in South Texas, where the party has seen signs of growing strength among more traditionally moderate and conservative parts of the Hispanic electorate, and deliver another hit to President Joe Biden and national Democrats ahead of the November midterms.

“This election will show that voters in Texas’ 34th District are tired of Democrats’ incompetence at the border and record-high inflation,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair said. “Texans and voters across the country know Democrat policies are making their lives worse, and will vote Republican.”

Flores did not return a request for comment from CNN.

Vela’s unexpected departure and the resulting fight to finish his term is only the latest headache he’s caused for Democratic House leadership. He was one of nine members who, in August 2021, helped derail Democratic plans to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill in tandem with Biden’s social spending package. The group demanded in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she should move ahead with the infrastructure bill — a route Democrats eventually took — and worry about passing the larger legislation later.

As angry progressives predicted, decoupling the two bills effectively killed the latter. Infrastructure ultimately passed the House and Senate, but Biden’s Build Back Better package never made it to his desk, stalling out in the Senate and depriving the White House of what would have been its signature legislative achievement.

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