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The wrestling for Latino voters intensifies after mixed results in South Texas

There was no "red wave" — but a Hispanic Republican woman won in the historically Democratic region, showing there’s still a lot of ideological grappling and spending to come.
Voters wait in line outside a polling location in McAllen, Texas on Nov. 8, 2022.
Voters wait in line outside a polling location in McAllen, Texas, on Tuesday.Jordan Vonderhaar / Bloomberg via Getty Images

McALLEN, Texas — Whew.

That’s the sigh of relief Texas Democrats are expressing after they kept at bay some of the multimillion-dollar Republican push to scoop up once reliably Democratic-voting Latinos in South Texas and sweep three congressional races.

The congressional races were seen as tests of what has become conventional wisdom and a GOP mantra: that Latino voters are shifting to the Republican Party after President Donald Trump made inroads in the region in 2020.

But at the end of election night, just one of three Latina candidates whom the party banked on heavily had won — Monica De La Cruz defeated Michelle Vallejo in the 15th Congressional District, which the GOP-controlled Legislature redrew to help a Republican win.

And within the district that De La Cruz won, her Democratic opponent won by a significant margin in Hidalgo County, the Rio Grande Valley border county that includes McAllen. Vallejo won 55.3% of the vote to De La Cruz’s 42.7%, according to unofficial results from the Texas secretary of state.

Moderate Democrats prevailed in the two other highly contested congressional districts, showing there's still a lot of ideological grappling and spending to come in the political wrestling match over the region’s Latino electorate.

Gilbert Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Party chairman, said Wednesday that Republicans' "red wave didn’t materialize." Yet in her victory speech in McAllen on Tuesday, De La Cruz echoed the longtime GOP message to Latinos: “Regardless of how you voted, este es su partido (this is your party). ... We are the party that wants Hispanics to prosper, not depend on the government."

In the 34th District, Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez ended Republican Rep. Mayra Flores' short stint in Congress. She had won a special election in the district in June to become the first Mexican-born congresswoman.

Gonzalez won Cameron County, the large border county anchoring the district.

Flores blamed the apathy of her own party members and independents.

“The RED WAVE did not happen. Republicans and Independents stayed home,” Flores tweeted early Wednesday.

In District 28, conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar secured a 10th term in Congress, winning his vitriolic, tougher-than-expected race against Republican Cassy Garcia, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz.

The contentious race even had barbs about "narcos" — first from Garcia and then Tuesday night from Cuellar, in a tweet he deleted.

Cuellar trounced Garcia in Webb County, the border county in the district, winning 76% of the vote, while Garcia ended the night with 29.4%, unofficial results show.

Voters talk of making 'history,' defend abortion rights

On Election Day, Tony Torres, 53, was outside the Lark Community Center polling site in McAllen, urging votes for De La Cruz.

“We are going to flip it red. We are going to make history,” Torres said Tuesday morning.

“We see it as an ideological war. They are trying to change a lot of things, the Hispanic culture,” Torres said of Democrats. “We believe the [far left] is trying to destroy that. They encourage women to be single mothers. They encourage abortion. They encourage transgender issues, LGBTQ,” with children in schools — “that’s wrong.”

In Edinburg, Aleyda Gonzalez, 45, said she voted to protect abortion rights — which meant Democratic.

Aleyda Gonzalez said her vote was a vote for the protection of voting rights and she voted Democrat in Edinburg in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
Aleyda Gonzalez said she voted Democratic in Edinburg in the Rio Grande Valley to protect abortion rights. Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

“I’m against the law banning abortion, because I think it’s a decision of every woman," she said in Spanish. "We should not have a law controlling that. We should not make it illegal."

As the congressional races appeared to be tightening in the final weeks, Democrats ratcheted up their campaign spending and activity.

Gonzalez was confident about his robust campaign operation, even as election prognosticators were seeing his victory as less of a sure thing. In his campaign, Gonzalez emphasized billions of federal dollars he'd brought to the region in his three terms in office.

“The people of South Texas have spoken. They have chosen someone with a track record of bringing vital resources to South Texas," Gonzalez said in an election night statement.

Republicans won the governor’s race and every state executive office, continuing their hold on state power since 1994. Hispanics are estimated to have become Texas' largest group, making up 40.2% of the population last year, compared with 39.4% who are non-Hispanic white.

In a statement, Macarena Martinez, the Republican National Committee spokeswoman in Texas, focused on the state wins, saying voters “want to keep Texas red, keep Texas prosperous and reject the failed progressive policies of Joe Biden and the Democrat Party.”

Republicans and allied groups spent millions on the congressional races and other contests.

“For a month there in the Valley, it felt like it was Vegas or Phoenix and being in a battleground area,” said James Aldrete, a Democratic consultant.

Aldrete had worked on a race in a state Senate district that overlaps with Gonzalez’s district. His client, Democrat Morgan La Mantilla, won.

Benjamin Garza, 53, drove from Delaware, where he was working, to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where he lives, to be able to vote.
Benjamin Garza, 53, drove from Delaware, where he was working, to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where he lives, to be able to vote. Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

As voter Benjamin Garza saw it, the Rio Grande Valley is a Democratic oasis in Republican Texas.

He drove over a day from Delaware, where he was working in his business of selling and training horses, to Edinburg, Texas, to be able to vote Tuesday, he said.

“Texas is red. I’m trying to make it blue,” he said.

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