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Texas Democrats say national groups are giving up on South Texas congressional race

Houston Chronicle 10/11/2022 Jasper Scherer, Cayla Harris, Austin Bureau
© Marie D. De Jesús, Staff Photographer

National Democrats appear to be shifting their resources out of a key battleground congressional district in South Texas, sparking a wave of criticism from Texas Democrats who say their out-of-state counterparts are giving up on the seat too early.

With three contested races for Congress in South Texas this year, most national Democratic campaign groups have prioritized the re-election bids of U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez.

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That has left Michelle Vallejo, the Democratic nominee in the 15th Congressional District, outmatched by a wave of Republican outside spending in a district that favored former President Donald Trump in 2020 by just 3 percentage points.

It is statistically the closest congressional race in Texas this fall. House Republicans’ top two campaign groups, encouraged by their gains in traditionally blue South Texas, have poured resources into the district in support of GOP nominee Monica De La Cruz.

Their efforts have pushed political watchdogs across the country to label the district as “likely Republican.”

Now, with just two weeks until early voting begins, Vallejo is counting mostly on in-state support to buoy her campaign. A progressive Democrat who has recently toned down her furthest-left priorities, Vallejo has struggled to find a niche in the South Texas battleground where Cuellar and Gonzalez — who both cut a more moderate profile than Vallejo — are also fighting for their political lives.

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“We're going to continue working with national leadership and hopefully find a path where it makes a lot of sense for them to invest and to support me,” Vallejo said in an interview Tuesday. “I mean, the argument is already there, right? Because this is the No. 1 most competitive seat. We’ve been working very hard. … We feel very confident that we have everything we need, and just to be able to push people a little bit more in our corner is the goal.”

Her comments came days after Axios reported that the House Majority PAC is planning to cancel scheduled ad reservations for Vallejo at the end of this month. The super PAC has more heavily supported the re-election bids of Cuellar in Laredo and Gonzalez in Brownsville, who are both running in bluer districts.

“This was some news that we were not expecting, but we’re staying focused,” Vallejo said. “We're still pushing to get as much support at the national level as possible, because every bit of help really just helps us get this job done that we have at hand.”

Axios also reported that Vallejo “isn’t getting any support” from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm. A spokeswoman for the group disputed that, pointing to digital and radio ads the DCCC has run in English and Spanish in the 15th Congressional District, along with opening an office there earlier this year.

“The DCCC has invested considerable resources to win all three South Texas races, and our commitment has not changed,” said DCCC spokeswoman Helen Kalla. “We're excited that our partners will be joining us for the final stretch and we're ready to win these races together.”

Vallejo said her campaign has seen an uptick in donations since the news of the waning national support, and more Democratic partners have started reaching out to her team. Still, the DCCC has not run any TV ads in the 15th district, as it has done in Gonzalez and Cuellar’s races.

“I understand that Texas 34 and 28 have incumbents who are running, and I learned quickly that the national party does defend and protect their seats more aggressively,” Vallejo said. “For me, I just see it as part of the job of being the future congresswoman for South Texas, advocating and pushing for more, because we are very deserving of all the investments and more that could potentially come our way.”

Meanwhile, Republican groups led by the National Republican Congressional Committee and Congressional Leadership Fund have flooded the airwaves with ads casting Vallejo as too liberal.

“The Democratic Party abandoned Latinos a long time ago,” tweeted De La Cruz, who was not available for an interview. “This comes as no surprise.”

De La Cruz also ran for the 15th district in 2020, coming within 3 percentage points of defeating Gonzalez in a race that drew little attention. Gonzalez decided to run in the 34th after last year's redistricting process.

Trouble with D.C.

The DCCC in recent years has been a frequent target of Texas Democrats, who have accused the group of putting its thumb on the scale in primary battles and, earlier this year, failing to lend enough help in a South Texas special election won by Republican U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores.

Party leaders renewed their criticism of the group, and national Democrats as a whole, saying they are again neglecting the region.

“For too long, national Democrats in Washington have taken the Rio Grande Valley for granted — writing off my community as just another small blue cluster on the map that could be reliably counted on cycle after cycle,” said Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa, who previously served as Cameron County judge, in a fundraising email.

Danny Diaz, the political director of the progressive advocacy group LUPE Votes, echoed a similar sentiment in a Tuesday interview. He called the “11th-hour” decision to pull resources from Vallejo’s campaign a “slap in the face.”

“We haven't been able to count on the national Democratic establishment for a long time,” he said. “We saw this coming. We saw Republicans here years ago already trying to make moves here, sounding the alarm, and there was very little attention. Now it is truly a competitive district because it was redrawn by Republicans in the Legislature last session. Now we find ourselves in really hot water.”

Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Jamarr Brown, in an internal memo Monday, said the party would deploy staffers to the Rio Grande Valley to “assist campaigns on the ground with organizing, digital, communications, fundraising and other efforts” aimed at boosting turnout in the area.

But political experts are cynical. “They're saying all this, it’s great talk — but let's see if they come through with money,” said Jon Taylor, a politics professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Former gubernatorial nominee and state Sen. Wendy Davis also condemned the national groups in a tweet, accusing them of essentially conceding defeat.

"So the @DCCC is throwing in the towel in the only truly swing seat in TX?” Davis tweeted, suggesting Democrats should blame the two PACs if Vallejo loses and her race is swept up in the "national narrative" that "D's are losing Latinos." 

Robert Velez, a politics professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said national Democrats’ decisions to invest more heavily in Cuellar and Gonzalez’s campaigns could boil down to logistics, since both are considered toss-up races.

Democrats across the country know that the Rio Grande Valley is trending redder than it has for years, and the 15th district could be a “sacrificial lamb” in the grand scheme of close congressional races nationwide.

Cassy Garcia, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, is running against Cuellar in the 28th district, and Flores, who has represented the 34th district since June, is vying to keep her seat when she faces Gonzalez.

“I think it's fair to say a lot of Democrats feel abandoned,” Velez said. “(National groups are) not putting in the money into the race that they could or should, according to some, because they're making a cost-benefit analysis, and it never feels good to be the one that doesn't make the cut.”

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