The significance of the GOP’s upset in South Texas

by Aaron Blake, WaPo

Republicans picked off their first Democratic seat of the 2022 election cycle on Tuesday, with Mayra Flores winning a special election in South Texas’s heavily Hispanic, blue-leaning 34th Congressional District.

And with Flores becoming the first Mexican-born woman in Congress, Republicans are hailing it as both evidence of their momentum with Hispanic voters — increasingly vital in U.S. elections — and in the 2022 election generally.

But how much does it actually tell us?

There was a time in which such special elections were billed as harbingers of election waves to come. And they have been … sometimes. Some of the big examples:

  • In 2005 and 2006, Democrats were surprisingly competitive for a couple of conservative-leaning seats in California and Ohio, right before they won both the House and the Senate.
  • In 2008, a trio of shock Democratic wins — two in the Deep South and one for the seat of former speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) — presaged Democrats winning back the White House.
  • In 2010, it was a shock GOP win in Hawaii, before Republicans reclaimed the House.
  • In 2011, now-New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) won a special election upstate, before President Barack Obama’s reelection.
  • In 2018, it was Democrat Conor Lamb’s win in conservative western Pennsylvania, before Democrats snagged the House back.

Mixed in, though, have been some less telling results. Earlier in the 2010 cycle, Democrats also had picked off a seat. Republicans won one in New York City, of all places, early in 2012′s cycle. And Democrats actually took over a seat in California in 2020 — right before they lost the White House. So one big pickup does not an election cycle make. But it can be a sign.

There’s no question that the South Texas result is a significant win for the GOP, considering the particulars of this district. Democrats have controlled the Rio Grande Valley for more than a century. And Republicans picked off a district that’s both the country’s second-most heavily Hispanic (84 percent) and that went for Joe Biden by four points.

Republicans have been gaining in the area for years, with most of former president Donald Trump’s biggest gains between the 2016 and 2020 elections coming in heavily Hispanic counties in South Texas and southern Florida. But that hadn’t — yet — translated to taking heavily Hispanic Democratic congressional seats. As The Washington Post’s Arelis R. Hernández and Michael Scherer wrote in February, Republicans have continued to chip away at long-standing Democratic dominance in South Texas. This district went for President Biden by just four points, but in 2012 and 2016, it went blue by more than 20 points.

Complicating matters somewhat when it comes to discerning what Tuesday’s race portends is that national Democrats didn’t really try very hard in it. Texas’s congressional map is being overhauled, and come November, this district (1) will be more heavily Democratic and (2) will feature incumbent Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D) on the ballot. (The leading Democratic candidate in this race, Dan Sanchez, was running only for the remainder of the current term.) Thus there wasn’t as much at stake as there would be in a normal special election.

Essentially, Democrats’ incentives here would have been to salvage a vote for the next few months, to avoid forcing Gonzalez to run against a fellow incumbent, and to avoid an embarrassing loss. Ultimately, national Democrats dropped a modest sum on campaign ads in the final week, which Sanchez complained was too little, too late. And, indeed, he was badly outspent and outpaced on the airwaves.

Potentially due in part to the low stakes, turnout was also extremely light — with fewer than 29,000 votes counted thus far. For comparison’s sake, more than 200,000 voted in the same race in 2020, and more than 140,000 voted in the 2018 midterms. That’s a huge drop-off — bigger than you usually see even in special elections.

In sum: Flores’s win is unambiguously a good sign for Republicans, even as it can be oversold as a predictor of things to come. But we already knew Republicans were in a very good position, by virtue of how they’re doing on the generic ballot.

If there’s one thing this result could speak to, it confirms the polling that suggests Republicans continue to gain with Hispanic voters. Some surveys have shown Republicans closing the gap among this demographic on the generic ballot, but generally the sample sizes are very small, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions.

A special election in 1 of 435 districts is a very small sample size in its own way. But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen bona fide evidence of Republicans gaining with Hispanics or in South Texas of late. And all the caveats included, it’s an inauspicious development for a Democratic Party already staring down an arduous November.


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