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Trump visits South Texas as GOP seeks to build on gains among Latinos in three key House races

<i>Emily Elconin/Getty Images</i><br/>With just over two weeks until Election Day
Getty Images
Emily Elconin/Getty Images
With just over two weeks until Election Day

By Eric Bradner, CNN

With just over two weeks until Election Day, former President Donald Trump is looking to shore up GOP support in South Texas on Saturday as Republicans seek to build on their 2020 gains with Latino voters as part of their efforts to win control of the House.

Republicans are targeting three congressional seats in the Rio Grande Valley — a culturally conservative but historically Democratic region where GOP candidates are aiming to grow the party’s advances with Latino voters in recent years.

If the GOP can win multiple House seats in South Texas, it would boost the party’s hopes of winning a majority in that chamber come November 8, while also solidifying Republicans in several key statewide races.

The GOP’s three Latina nominees have all proven to be strong fundraisers who could become part of a new, more diverse generation of Republican leadership.

“I can’t wait to see what these three strong women do. They are really going to give a hard time to the Squad when they get to DC,” Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump’s US ambassador to the United Nations, said at a recent campaign stop in McAllen.

The region’s outcome could also be a harbinger for other battlegrounds where Latino voters are crucial portions of the electorate — including Arizona and Nevada, both swing states in presidential elections, as well as increasingly Democratic urban counties elsewhere in Texas.

Democratic officials in South Texas said this year’s races will be an important gauge of whether they can stop the slide they saw in 2020.

“We are literally busting our butts trying to turn it around,” said Sylvia Bruni, the Democratic chairwoman in Webb County, home of Laredo.

She said Democrats are targeting infrequent voters there — people who have voted for the party’s candidates in the past, but also have a history of skipping elections — with their door-knocking and phone-banking efforts. Bruni said she hopes the increased outreach efforts can reverse her party’s slide in an area that, prior to 2020, had been “very quiet” in terms of political outreach and had seen lower-than-Texas-average turnout.

“The message is, for the love of God, this time you absolutely have to vote,” Bruni said. “A lot of it is just going to depend on whether there are more of us decent, reasonable people, that there are of them. And for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you whether there are going to be.”

However, there are indications that energy is on Republicans’ side.

The GOP’s candidates in those key House races all outraised their Democratic rivals in 2022’s third quarter. Combined, the Republicans raised $4.3 million over the three-month stretch from July through September compared to the Democratic contenders’ $2.4 million.

All three raised more than $1 million — a sign of Republican donors’ enthusiasm about the party’s prospects in one of the most rapidly evolving regions on the political map.

In the 15th District, Republican Monica De La Cruz raised a little more than $1 million and still had $772,000 in her campaign’s bank account at the end of the quarter — more than Democratic rival Michelle Vallejo’s $867,000 raised and $301,000 on hand.

In the 34th District, home to an incumbent-vs.-incumbent match-up after redistricting, Republican Rep. Mayra Flores’ $1.6 million raised over the last three months dwarfed Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez’ $497,000 raised, though both ended the quarter with about $800,000 on hand.

And in long-time Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar’s 28th District, his $990,000 raised over the third quarter was outpaced by Republican challenger Cassy Garcia’s $1.7 million, though Cuellar ended the quarter with $836,000 on hand to Garcia’s $384,000.

“Sometimes it’s timing and the environment. Sometimes it’s candidate quality. Sometimes it’s money. But when you have all of those at the same time, it’s pretty powerful,” said Austin-based Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “And that’s what we’re seeing down there.”

In explaining South Texas’ shift toward Republicans in recent years, GOP strategists point to cultural and economic factors.

Nationally, the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade’s national abortion rights protections appears to have energized Democratic voters. But the issue has played differently in the House races in South Texas, where Democratic candidates have not focused on the issue the way the party’s contenders have in most other competitive races across the map.

“Among conservative Catholic Hispanics, that issue cuts differently. It may actually be a net positive,” Mackowiak said.

Additionally, oil and natural gas production is a major economic driver in South Texas — an economic reality that diminishes the potency of the green energy elements of major spending initiatives Biden has signed into law.

“These are good, high-paying jobs, and South Texas is finally getting its share,” said Wayne Hamilton, a Texas Republican strategist and former Abbott campaign manager who now works on down-ballot races.

And given that these House districts are on the US-Mexico border, immigration and border security is also a key issue — and Trump’s hard-line policies appealed to wide swaths of voters.

“People try to make this immigration issue a racial issue. It’s not. It is illegal migrants overrunning small towns, and the Hispanics that live in those towns are as furious as the Whites,” Hamilton said.

“You go to bed at night, and in the morning, people are camping in your backyard. You can’t leave your shoes outside because they get stolen. You can’t leave your bikes outside because they get stolen,” he said. “That has angered people up and down the border regardless of their ethnicity.”

Democrats argued that the political shifts in South Texas have happened in part because of the area’s historically low turnout.

“It’s always a bit of a blank slate,” said James Aldrete, a Texas Democratic strategist who is working on the 34th District House race. “It can be a different electorate every time.”

They also point to the party’s lack of investment in infrastructure in a state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. Aside from O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign and 2022 gubernatorial campaign, Texas Democrats have been starved for cash, and must spread the money they do have across a state with several massive metropolitan areas.

“You’re looking a at battleground where the Democratic infrastructure in the state has been on life support,” Aldrete said of the Rio Grande Valley. “It’s a bit of a roll of the dice that you can change the dynamic with a little bit of effort.”

Trump is visiting Robstown, a suburb west of Corpus Christi — which is north of the Rio Grande Valley — and just outside two of the three battleground House districts.

Two Texas Republicans who have closely aligned themselves with Trump and are on the ballot this year — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who faces a rematch with 2018 Democratic nominee Mike Collier, and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is locked in a tight race against Democrat Rochelle Garza — are both slated to speak at the rally. Gov. Greg Abbott, who faces Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, said he isn’t attending because he will be in Florida on a pre-planned fundraising trip.

It’s not clear whether the three Republicans in competitive House races will appear at Trump’s rally Saturday. None were listed on the speaking schedule.

And South Texas Democrats said Trump’s visit, two days before early voting begins, could do more to galvanize liberal voters than sway moderates in the GOP’s favor.

“Trump coming just highlights the contrast between what what we stand for and what they stand for,” said Jared Hockema, the Democratic chairman in Cameron County, the home of Brownsville and a key portion of the 34th District. “They’re promising to obstruct everything and do nothing, and that certainly isn’t a solution to addressing the challenge of inflation or the challenges people face in their everyday lives.”

Still, the former President’s visit to South Texas underscores the importance of the region — in this year’s midterms and beyond.

The 15th District, which stretches south from the eastern suburbs of San Antonio, has long been seen by both parties as the most competitive House district in Texas. But Democrats there have complained in recent weeks as the national party and its House campaign arms focused resources elsewhere — a sign that De La Cruz is favored next month.

The current incumbent in the 15th District, Gonzalez, is instead running in the redrawn 34th District, vacated when Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela resigned this spring. Even though President Joe Biden won the district, which includes McAllen and Brownsville and stretches along the Gulf of Mexico, by 15 percentage points in 2020, Gonzalez faces a tough race against a Republican incumbent in Flores — who won Vela’s old seat in a special election to replace him.

In the 28th District, which stretches just east of San Antonio south to Laredo, Cuellar is a political institution — the most conservative Democrat in the House who has now survived two fierce primaries against a progressive challenger.

He cast the only Democratic vote in July against the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2022, which would have preserved abortion rights nationwide after the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade.

But Garcia, his GOP challenger, has cast Cuellar — who was first elected to the House in 2004 — as corrupt following the FBI’s search of his home as part of an investigation in which Cuellar has denied any wrongdoing.

“He used us to enrich himself. Private planes, DC condos and hundreds of thousands of dollars in payouts to relatives,” a narrator says in a Garcia ad. “Cassy Garcia won’t trade stocks in Congress and she’s not looking to get rich.”

Bruni, the Webb County Democratic chairwoman, conceded that while phone-banking she has encountered left-leaning voters who are opposed to Cuellar.

“We remind them when that comes up that the alternative is far, far worse for us,” she said. “We’re basically telling them, this election is just as — maybe more — important than 2020.”

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