Mayra Flores
Republican Mayra Flores is facing off for a second time against Democrat Vicente Gonzalez. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP

Republicans’ Pull With Latinos Is Hitting Its Limits In South Texas

The race between Mayra Flores and Vicente Gonzalez will test whether Republicans are making big gains in a majority Latino district.

After spending millions of dollars in South Texas, Republicans have very little to show for it — and it’s unclear whether they understand why.

South Texas rose to national attention following the 2020 and 2022 election cycles. Donald Trump made gains in the region, and Mayra Flores won a special election that flipped a seat red.

However, a few months later, Flores ran in the general election against Democrat Vicente Gonzalez, who previously represented a neighboring district but moved following redistricting. The NRCC and DCCC both threw their resources behind the candidates. In the end, it wasn’t that close. Gonzalez went home with about 53% of the turnout, winning by over 11,000 votes.

In the years since, the narrative has continued that Republicans are making gains in South Texas among its heavily Latino voter base. It’s not an imagined trend, but some residents feel the GOP is still misunderstanding the voters, and it’s showing up in their candidates — including Flores, as she prepares for a rematch against Gonzalez.

“The Valley and the border is a very unique place,” said Carlos Cascos, a district resident and the former secretary of state to Gov. Greg Abbott. “You’ve got these highfalutin consulting firms trying to advise local, state candidates, congressional candidates, and they don’t have a clue about Valley politics. So consequently, they’re not very successful.”


In many ways, the Flores race does not feel like a local one. She’s become known as a Trump acolyte and for wading into culture wars. She’s also garnered some bad press, from the silly to the more serious: She was caught posting food photos online that were taken from other accounts but implied they were hers, and her former district director was accused of sexual assault by multiple women.

Some observers said they’ve noticed her moderating out this cycle compared to the last, but it may be a little too late. She’s gotten endorsements from prominent Republicans like Trump and Mike Johnson, but those things could alienate the moderates she needs to win.

“Democrats alone cannot win races down here. Neither can Republicans alone,” Cascos said. “They need the independents, the moderates, those swing voters. Whomever gets the majority of those is going to win these races.”

Cascos switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party in the early 2000s and has since been a Cameron County judge and an appointee under Govs. Rick Perry and Abbott. He won elections in Cameron County as a Republican before there was even a whisper of a “red wave” among South Texas Latinos. But he said he could do it because he kept the politics local. And while he supported Flores, he believed she had failed to do so.

“If you want to win this, you got to let people know what you’re going to do to put food on their table,” he said of the region, one of the most impoverished in the nation.

Flores’ past win in the district might not be a good indicator of future success. In the special election that Flores won, about 30,000 people voted, and she won by just over 2,000 votes despite heavy NRCC investment and the DCCC largely staying out.

Running against Gonzalez, an incumbent and experienced congressperson in a general election, was a very different race. Nearly 135,000 people voted. Redistricting also hurt Flores, making nearby Republican Monica De La Cruz’s district more conservative and TX-34 more Democratic.

De La Cruz then became the poster child for the changing political dynamic in the Rio Grande Valley. But experts noted that her victory didn’t prove the border was swinging toward Republicans either.

De La Cruz won her race because of her support in the counties closer to San Antonio, which are significantly whiter and wealthier than those along the border. Gonzalez’s district tells a similar story. Though the disparities in race and wealth aren’t as extreme, he won the counties along the border, while Flores won the ones further north.

De La Cruz “only won because of white people,” said Matt Barreto, a UCLA researcher and pollster who specializes in Latino communities and has polled for Democrats, including Gonzalez, in the past. “If you just took the southern part of her district, she would have lost, so it’s not that Latinos are electing a Latina Republican.”

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For that reason, the De La Cruz playbook can’t be copied and pasted to District 34. The current Cook political rating for District 34 sits at D+9. There’s limited polling there; the two candidates were neck and neck in one poll sponsored by the NRCC.

“District 15 is different than District 34, and people in D.C. think that the whole region is the same, right? It’s not,” Gonzalez said. “But we certainly welcome them to spend their resources down there.”


Republicans insist that Flores can win. “I can tell you what is different is deep South Texas is turning red,” De La Cruz told NOTUS. “What we see in the Republican numbers is absolutely amazing.”

“I don’t think she’s too conservative [or] not conservative enough,” nearby Rep. Tony Gonzales said. “Apparently, people thought she was just right once, and I bet they can decide she’s just right twice.”

The Flores campaign did not respond in time to a request for comment, but the Texas GOP argued that opposition to President Joe Biden and Gonzalez would spur her to victory. “Voters in TX-34 will send Mayra Flores back to Congress because they are worse off than they were two years ago and are waking up to the fact that things will not change until more Republicans represent them in government,” Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi said in a statement.

But Flores is going to have a tough race for a myriad of reasons. It’s a presidential election year, which has seen greater turnout for Democrats than Republicans since 2008, and people in the Valley often consider themselves Democrats as a default. (“In the Valley, the joke is you’re born two things: You’re born a Catholic, and you’re born a Democrat,” said Cascos.)

It’s not that there is zero realignment among South Texans — it’s just that thus far, Barreto feels the trend is exaggerated. Many live in rural areas and are working class and Catholic, so it’s not necessarily shocking that they may vote Republican. But the idea that they are shifting parties in a large and meaningful way doesn’t show up in data, he said.

“If Republicans were recruiting Hispanics in South Texas, they should start appearing in the Republican primary if they actually identify and consider themselves to be Republicans,” he said.

One of the warning signs for Flores came in the March primary. She had three primary challengers while Gonzalez ran uncontested, but he still got more votes than all the Republican candidates combined.

Flores has already spent nearly $2 million — a massive sum for a primary where she was the clear favorite. According to FEC data, she has just under $500,000 in cash left on hand, while Gonzalez still has over a million.

Flores has brought in a monster sum of money (more than Gonzalez by nearly a million dollars), but a NOTUS analysis of FEC data revealed that she raised roughly $11,000 more than him from donors in Texas.

While FEC data does not provide a complete or comprehensive picture of a candidate’s support because donations of less than $200 do not have to be listed on the report, it lends some credence to the idea that Flores’ support is stronger among Republicans nationwide than in her district.


The Flores-Gonzalez race does show one thing for sure: Both parties are now investing in the Rio Grande Valley.

“It is a region of the state that is hungry for engagement. And when candidates do that, they win,” Barreto said.

While some still feel the GOP is missing its mark, others think the party realized its mistake and adjusted.

“The bottom line is you can’t bring in a bunch of people from out of state and dump them in South Texas and expect them to be successful,” said Wayne Hamilton, the man behind Project Red TX, which recruits and supports local Republican candidates and has been active along the border and in South Texas. “The RNC realized that last time.”

Hamilton has seen success by floating candidates in small local races that don’t get much attention or turnout, where neither party has invested. The potential for impact there is significant just by funding a decent candidate.

The problem is Democrats can also turn out voters who haven’t been engaged because they knew their party would win. There are more than 260,000 voters registered in TX-34, but only about 135,000 voted in the last general election.

“We, as the Democratic Party, are not at the limits of our support,” Cameron County Democratic Party Chair Jared Hockema said. “We’ve got a lot of folks that we still haven’t activated in terms of voter turnout.”

Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.