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Republicans are overwhelming Democrats with money and resources ahead of the June 14 special election for a South Texas-based congressional seat, eager to score an early victory in their campaign to win the traditionally blue region.
The main GOP candidate, Mayra Flores, and her allies have spent nearly $1 million on TV, while Democrats had not booked any airtime as of Friday. Meanwhile, she outraised her closest Democratic competition, Dan Sanchez, by 16-to-1 on the only major campaign finance report of the special election.
The Republican offensive has put Democrats in an unusual position in an area they have long dominated: playing the underdog. After casting his early ballot Tuesday in Harlingen, Sanchez, a Harlingen lawyer, compared the race to a David-vs.-Goliath battle — with him playing David.
At the same time, he has expressed confidence.
“We’re gonna win this June 14 without a runoff,” Sanchez said a day later at a campaign rally, also in Harlingen. “We’re gonna show those Republicans that money doesn’t buy elections in South Texas.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has kept its distance from the special election and downplayed the stakes, arguing the seat will remain under Democratic control after the November election regardless. But with the Republican ad dollars piling up, the DCCC launched a $100,000 digital ad buy in partnership with Sanchez’s campaign that began Saturday, according to his campaign.
The special election in the 34th District was caused by U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s decision to resign in March to work for the lobbying firm Akin Gump. The Brownsville Democrat had already announced he was not seeking reelection, and Flores won the Republican primary to vie for his open seat in November. U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, who switched districts due to redistricting, is the Democratic nominee for Vela’s seat this fall.
But unlike Flores, Gonzalez chose not to run in the special election to finish Vela’s current term, instead backing Sanchez, a longtime local political figure who most recently served as a Cameron County commissioner. Vela also supports Sanchez. If Sanchez wins, he would hold the seat only until January.
The special election could go to a late-summer runoff given the presence of two other, lesser-known candidates on the ballot, Democrat Rene Coronado and Republican Juana “Janie” Cantu-Cabrera.
National Democrats have largely steered clear of the special election, deeming it too low-stakes. They argue a Flores win would be a pyrrhic victory given that the special election is being held under the previous, less competitive lines of the district, which President Joe Biden won by 4 percentage points. Redistricting made the district more comfortable for Democrats in November, when Flores will also have to deal with a more established opponent in Gonzalez.
“A Democrat will represent TX-34 in January,” Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “If Republicans spend money on a seat that is out of their reach in November, great.”
Republicans know the November election is a taller order. But they hope the momentum from a Flores win in the special election would make it easier and fuel optimism for other South Texas races they are targeting.
Flores said she was not surprised national Democrats were skipping the special election, saying they have “always taken us for granted” in South Texas.
“Democrats abandoned South Texas voters and now South Texas voters are going to make them pay,” Torunn Sinclair, a spokesperson for the House GOP campaign arm, said in a statement.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has helped fund some of Flores’ TV ads, which began about a month out from the special election. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the top super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, recently launched $200,000 worth of TV and digital ads supporting Flores. The Republican National Committee has taken the lead on the ground, boasting over 16,000 doors knocked and nearly 50,000 phone calls made since May 1. And the Texas Republican Party, whose chair and vice chair endorsed Flores early on, has sent out at least four mailers in the district.
The advertising has been mostly positive, playing up Flores’ story as the wife of a Border Patrol agent and as a Mexican immigrant whose parents brought her to the United States as a young child. But the GOP groups have also used the advertising to continue tarnishing President Joe Biden’s image in South Texas, with one TV spot from CLF saying Biden has “left us behind.” And Sanchez appears in some of the Republican advertising, too, with one Texas GOP mailer yoking him to “D.C. Democrats creating crime and chaos.” (He invoked his background as a judge and prosecutor to push back on the attack.)
In an interview, Flores declined to entertain a question on her differences with Sanchez.
“Who is Dan Sanchez?” she said. “I don’t know who he is.”
Democrats have not hesitated to attack Flores as an extreme Republican and acolyte of former President Donald Trump. Campaigning with Sanchez on Thursday, state Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa called Flores “one of the biggest Trumpers that we have seen in South Texas.”
“She looks sweet in commercials, but let me tell you, the things that come out of her mouth and her soul are mean things that are designed to hurt people,” said Hinojosa, who lives in the district.
Democrats have pointed to social media posts that Flores has made that include a flurry of hashtags including “#Q” and “#Qanon,” referring to the unfounded pro-Trump conspiracy movement, which the FBI has deemed a domestic threat. She has also cast doubt on Trump’s 2020 reelection loss on social media. In the interview, Flores denied she has ever expressed support for Qanon, and when asked about the 2020 election, she said she was focused on the current one.
To be sure, Sanchez has not been without important allies in Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, donated to his campaign, and he has the backing of the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, known as CHC BOLD PAC. The political action committee went on the offensive Thursday, issuing a statement blasting Flores as a “QAnon loving and hate-mongering Republican.”
The Texas Democratic Party said it was conducting voter contact in the special election “in partnership with the DCCC and county parties.” Jamarr Brown, the state party’s co-executive director, said in a statement that it was an “important election to ensure we maintain a Democratic stronghold in South Texas.”
But it remains to be seen if any national Democratic groups will come to Sanchez’s aid on the airwaves as the June 14 election nears. And campaign finance reports released Thursday brought the financial disparity into sharp relief.
Flores reported raising $752,000 in contributions from April 1 to May 25, spending $772,000 and having $100,000 cash on hand. Sanchez disclosed he got $46,000 in donations over roughly the same period — he announced his campaign April 6 — loaning himself $100,000, spending $42,000 and having $104,000 cash on hand.
The special election is coming after a series of primary runoffs for the November election that showed clear differences in campaigning among Democrats amid the new GOP spotlight on South Texas. In most of the runoffs, the more moderate Democrat prevailed — or is poised to prevail in runoffs that are still too close to call.
At a forum Tuesday, Sanchez followed the path of those candidates, calling himself a “conservative Democrat,” — especially on fiscal issues, he said — and “pro-life” as a Catholic. He repeatedly expressed a desire to work with Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn on combating gun violence after the Uvalde school shooting.
On one issue that is key to Republicans’ plans for South Texas, though — border security — Sanchez was unflinching.
“The wall is a failure,” he said, advocating for the money spent on it to instead go toward more personnel and technology. “I don’t believe the wall has done any good. People climb the wall, they dig and go underneath it.”
Both sides see the race as about far more than just problems at the border, though. Daniel Garza, president of the LIBRE Initiative, a Valley-based conservative Hispanic group that backs Flores, said economic concerns, including inflation, are “100%” the top issue in the special election.
“I think Latinos are just tired of other priorities being projected onto them,” Garza said.
While Republicans are going all out before the June 14 contest, some acknowledge a runoff is likely because four candidates are on the ballot. An overtime round could give Flores more time to campaign in a national spotlight — additionally helping her for the November election — but Democrats say it could be a double-edged sword.
“Obviously this scenario will allow her to campaign and campaign and campaign,” said Jared Hockema, chair of the Cameron County Democratic Party. “However, when you’re a radical extremist like her … sometimes exposure is not helpful to you.”
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