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Democrats are confronting a blitz of attack ads in South Texas as Republicans make good on their promise to seriously contest three congressional seats there.
Since Labor Day, outside GOP groups have blasted the Democratic nominees on multiple fronts, criticizing them all as weak on border issues and then zeroing in on candidate-specific vulnerabilities. Democratic groups are countering in two of the races, though for now, it is Republicans who appear to be in a more offensive posture.
The volume and tenor of the ads are not entirely surprising for a trio of nationally targeted congressional races with less than two months to go. But it is a new experience for South Texas, long a Democratic stronghold, and a reminder of how badly Republicans want to gain new ground in the region after President Joe Biden underperformed there in 2020.
The attack ads are flying in the 15th, 28th and 34th congressional districts, which include the Harlingen, Corpus Christi, Laredo and San Antonio media markets. In the 15th District, Republican Monica De La Cruz and Democrat Michelle Vallejo are competing for an open seat. The current incumbent in the 15th District — Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen — is running for reelection in the neighboring 34th District due to redistricting. Gonzalez’s opponent is U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, who won a June special election for the 34th. And in the 28th District, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, faces a GOP challenger in Cassy Garcia.
The 15th District is widely considered the most likely to end up in GOP hands, and Republicans have pushed especially hard on TV to define Vallejo as a radical liberal. Two GOP outfits, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, have already aired at least four anti-Vallejo ads, while their Democratic counterparts have not yet launched any commercials criticizing De La Cruz yet.
“The [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] is committed to winning all three South Texas races, and we’re currently on air in the Rio Grande Valley as part of that effort,” DCCC spokesperson Monica Robinson said in a statement.
For example, the DCCC is helping fund a pro-Gonzalez ad buy in the 34th District. It is not unusual for such groups to prioritize incumbents over open seats, and they have future ad reservations that could be used for the 15th District.
On Thursday, Vallejo is set to release her first TV ad targeting De La Cruz, branding her “too extreme” on abortion.
15th Congressional District
Vallejo ran as a proud progressive in her primary, and now Republicans are working to make her pay for it. One NRCC commercial warns she is a “different kind of Democrat,” citing her support for ending cash bail, among other things. Another calls her “pure radical.”
The anti-Vallejo spots have also been more personal. One CLF ad accuses her of “hosting a border resistance event at her family business,” complete with “anarchist artwork” and “calls to “smash ICE,” or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Vallejo’s campaign issued a news release responding to the ad, saying it falsely “weaponizes community events that were hosted at her family’s flea market,” which it regularly rents out. The campaign distanced itself from the artwork and anti-ICE rhetoric, saying the ad “highlights pieces of art from” a 2019 Catholic charity fundraiser “that Vallejo does not endorse nor has any connection to whatsoever.”
The latest NRCC ad features anti-Vallejo testimonials from three South Texans, including a man named Sean from Karnes County. He is a local real estate broker, Sean O’Brien, with a history of bombastic Facebook posts, including one after President Donald Trump’s reelection loss that suggested the U.S. Supreme Court should “throw out this bogus election.”
“These are not the values of South Texas, and if the NRCC is looking for extremism, all they have to do is look in the mirror,” a Vallejo spokesperson, Alejandro Garcia, said in a statement.
Vallejo’s first TV ad against De La Cruz is notable because both parties have largely steered clear of abortion in their ads so far. The Vallejo spot cites De La Cruz’s support for overturning Roe v. Wade, as well her opposition to all abortion except to save the life of the mother.
28th Congressional District
In the 28th District, Republicans are up against one of the most moderate House Democrats in Cuellar, who makes for a harder ideological contrast. Instead, they have prioritized attacks that say he has become too cozy in Washington, with one CLF commercial detailing his “luxury D.C. condo.” Others accuse him of using his position as a congressman to enrich his family.
“Congressman Cuellar has spent his career fighting for South Texas and cracking down on fraud in government,” Cuellar spokesperson Jake Hocberg said in a statement. “Just this Congress he supported HR 1 — the largest anti-corruption and elections reform bill since Watergate – he voted to prevent political patronage and supported the Stock Act to stop insider trading by members of Congress.
Republicans have also sought to turn an asset for him in his hotly contested primary — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement — into a liability for November, airing multiple commercials that show him boasting of her support at a primary runoff rally. And on Thursday, the NRCC launched what appeared to be the first TV ad of the general election targeting Cuellar over the FBI raid of his Laredo home in January.
On the Democratic side, one ad from House Majority PAC has been especially controversial. Among other claims, it charges that Garcia’s “Washington allies support a plan that would gut Medicare and Social Security,” appearing to cite a New York Times article about Florida U.S. Sen. Rick Scott’s “Plan to Rescue America.” The plan, which has divided Republicans in Washington, calls for sunsetting all legislation after five years, an idea that critics note would extend to entitlements.
Garcia’s campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter to TV stations asking them to take down the commercial, saying there is no proof she supports Scott’s plan or that they are allies. “In fact, Garcia has never even spoken to Scott, let alone endorsed Scott’s plan,” Garcia’s campaign lawyer, Eric Wang, wrote in the letter.
34th Congressional District
Republicans are hammering Gonzalez for his past as a prominent South Texas attorney. His campaign maintains his clients were mostly “working families who were wronged by big insurance and corporations.”
But Republicans zeroed in on one 2006 case where he defended Marin Martinez-Hernandez, who was convicted of illegally transporting undocumented migrants across state lines. The ad claimed Gonzalez “made a living working for people charged with human smuggling” and insinuated he had made his fortune because he “profited off tragedy.”
Gonzalez’s campaign called the characterization an “absurd and desperate lie” and that he was never a criminal lawyer. Rather, “he was assigned several cases by federal judges who asked him to serve the community as a defense attorney.” It was common practice in McAllen and Brownsville at the time for non-criminal defense attorneys to be appointed by federal judges to work at an hourly rate under a practice known as “managed assigned counsel.”
Democrats, on the other hand, have attacked Flores for the voting record of her allies in Congress (she has been in office for only about three months and has not been able to build a substantive legislative record). Dubbing her an “interesada,” a House Majority PAC ad insinuated she is self-interested and tied her to Republicans who advocated privatizing Social Security and corporate tax cuts.
Her campaign merely brushed the ad off.
“If these lies are the best they got, buena suerte,” campaign manager Tyler Zanazzi said in a statement.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ political arm is also on the air against Flores, highlighting her vote against the bipartisan gun bill that she opposed after the Uvalde shooting. The ad, which shows a photo of Flores proudly clutching an assault rifle, notes the legislation was negotiated by the state’s senior senator, John Cornyn. She said she voted against it because it did not include enough school safety funding.
Alexa Ura contributed to this story.