In the three competitive congressional races in South Texas that could help determine control of the U.S. House, three Republican Latinas and one Democratic Latina are in spirited campaigns that signal a cultural pivot from the macho image of the politics of the past.

“There was a good old boy network in Texas for a long time,” said Chuck Rocha, a Washington-based Democratic political consultant from East Texas. Of the Latina candidates from both parties, he said, “Anybody who’s been to South Texas knows that brown women run the household and are thought leaders.”

Bill Miller an Austin consultant who advises Democrats and Republicans, said, “Latinas are the ones that are coming on strong. It’s a societal change.”

One is already in Congress: Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, who won a special election in June in the 34th District to finish the term of Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, who resigned, is now in a faceoff with another incumbent, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen. Gonzalez switched districts, changing from the 15th, redrawn by Republicans in the Texas Legislature last year to favor Republican candidates, to the neighboring 34th, where Democrats have an advantage.

In the 28th District, which runs from Laredo to the outskirts of San Antonio, Cassy Garcia, a former deputy state director for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is running an aggressive campaign against embattled U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Cuellar barely won his Democratic primary runoff by 289 votes against another Latina, immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros.

And in the 15th District, which runs from McAllen to Seguin, east of San Antonio, it’s Latina vs. Latina with GOP candidate Monica De La Cruz in a close contest against Democrat Michelle Vallejo.

The Republican Latina candidates are getting big boosts from Cruz and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and party organizations. Cruz kicked off a multistate bus tour last week for GOP candidates with campaign stops in Laredo for Garcia and in Harlingen for Flores.

“2022 will be the year of fearless Republican Latinas,” Cruz said in a statement to the American-Statesman. “This is the year strong, conservative Latina women make history by knocking out the Washington establishment class and defining a new generation of leadership.”

Cornyn told reporters in late September that he had been raising money for the Latina candidates and that Rio Grande Valley Hispanics were trending Republican for a reason.

“I think what Democrats have found is their progressive agenda is not finding a receptive audience in what is a pretty conservative, culturally conservative particular segment of our population,” Cornyn said. “Hispanics, who are generally family people who are people of faith, hardworking, they don’t really go for all this woke stuff.”

‘A Republican phenomenon’

All four Latina candidates, including Vallejo, owner of a flea market, emphasize their family and their struggles to get ahead. They all speak Spanish and emphasize their ties to the Rio Grande Valley. They are all running on their personal stories and achieving the American dream.

Ben Barnes, an Austin lobbyist and former lieutenant governor of Texas who advises Democratic leaders, said, “It used to be unusual to see Hispanic names on the ballot. After 2020, Republicans started recruiting Hispanics, particularly women. They did a good job of getting people to join the Republican Party.”

Latinos now outnumber non-Hispanic whites in Texas, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimates. While there have been Hispanic men in the U.S. Congress dating back to the 19th century, it was only in 2018 that the first Latina women were elected to Congress from Texas.

U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston and Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, were the breakthrough Latinas in 2018, reelected in 2020, and are supporting Vallejo.

“It’s really more of a Republican phenomenon this time around,” said Mark Jones, professor of political science at Rice University. “Latina Republicans tend to outperform the Anglo candidates in districts that have a Latino population.”

Immigrant roots

The three Latina Republicans are in sync with one another, often appearing together and always being forceful about their opinions. They agree on the crisis of the immigration influx at the border but tread carefully on the human cost of securing the border, saying they support the immigrant women and families trying to improve their lives. They say they want immigration controlled and don’t get into details.

Flores, a health care worker, especially makes it personal since she is an immigrant herself, born in Mexico, who crossed into the Rio Grande Valley with her family when she was 6 years old. She and Garcia are both married to Border Patrol agents.

“I am their worst nightmare,” Flores said of Democrats at the Harlingen rally. “All of a sudden, an immigrant, a woman, a mother is dangerous. They’ve been claiming all these years that they’re for people like me. But the moment that we fight for the values that we were raised with, do they not know that in Mexico you’re raised with some conservative values?”

The three GOP Latinas are opposed to abortion — a hot-button issue after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade — and Vallejo is not. But political experts do not expect the issue to sway voters in the region because the candidates’ positions are well-known. In the 28th District, Cuellar, a conservative Democrat, is against abortion. But Garcia targets Cuellar on the campaign trail on other issues, calling him corrupt after his home and office were raided by the FBI earlier this year, although no charges have been brought against him.

And in the 15th District, De La Cruz, a small-business owner, said in a Fox interview on Oct. 5: “We’re not complicated people here in South Texas. We love America. We want security. We love our family, and we love God.”

It’s not a message that is actually very different from her Democratic opponent.

“I am the daughter of Mexican immigrants,” Vallejo said in a statement to the American Statesman, “and growing up, I watched my parents work multiple jobs to get by. They provided me with a great example of how to work hard with my family and my community in order for all of us to have a better life.”

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