BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Science teacher Jorge Jasso takes pride in his Mexican roots. But, he also says, “I’m an American first” who wants to see elected officials put the needs of people in this country before immigrants.
His sentiment would seem to be an opening for Republicans who are waging an expensive battle to upend the political landscape in South Texas, an overwhelmingly Hispanic region where the GOP has expanded its share of Latino support since 2020 and where three Republican Latina congressional candidates have Democrats on edge heading into the midterm elections next month.
But instead, Jasso, 42, is volunteering for the first time in an election as part of Democrats' ground game in pushing back against the GOP deluge.
Things are about to pick up even more with a visit Saturday to southeast Texas by former President Donald Trump. Early voting in the Nov. 8 election starts Monday in Texas, where Latinos now outnumber whites.
Jasso is helping the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which has endorsed Democrats in most races on the ballot and has teamed up with other groups to mobilize voters.
Jasso said he doesn’t agree with all of Texas AFT’s positions, but he’s decided that Rep. Vicente González, the Democrat running in Texas’ 34th Congressional District, which includes Brownsville, deserves his support, along with other Democrats.
“I agree with most of his policies," he said of González. "Now do I agree with him 100 percent? Of course not, but is he willing to talk? Yes, I get a feeling he is open to dialogue."
As for González’s Republican opponent, Rep. Mayra Flores, Jasso said that “there’s no room for dialogue, and that’s huge for me.”
Because of redistricting, two incumbents, González and Flores, are battling it out in a district where 88.5% of eligible voters are Hispanic and that is considered favorable to Democrats. But the race has been tagged a toss-up by political prognosticators, as Flores has waged an aggressive and well-funded campaign.
Flores made history as the first Republican Latina elected from the region and the first Mexican-born congresswoman when she won a June special election. (The Democratic incumbent, Filemón Vela, resigned in March.)
After Flores canceled her participation in a debate on Oct, 19, González held a news conference and sat at a table with an empty chair and piece of paper with her name on it.
“My opponent didn’t show up today because she can’t defend her radical, right-wing Trump votes that she’s taken in the United States Congress,” Gonzalez said.
Reliably Democratic — and now a toss-up
The wife of a Border Patrol agent, Flores has appealed to voters with a message that family, God and country are Republican values that haven’t been represented by the Democratic Party. It’s reminiscent of the Ronald Reagan-era GOP message that suggested Hispanics didn’t know they were Republicans.
Flores, through her campaign manager, Dan Bucheli, declined requests for an interview, citing her schedule and commitments.
González, a three-term congressman who changed districts to run in the 34th, promoted the work he's done in the region to bring infrastructure investment for roads, bridges and a drainage system to keep residents safe during hurricane season.
“For the last six years and the last three terms in the United States Congress, I brought over $6 billion of resources right here to South Texas, infrastructure resources,” he said.
He said while the GOP may want to take credit for being better on the economy, he reminds voters that the Democratic Party has made sure they have programs such as Medicare, Social Security, a minimum wage, equal pay for women, a 40-hour work week, the GI Bill and federal Pell grants to help students pay for education.
But Abraham Enriquez, founder and president of the conservative group Bienvenido US, said South Texas voters are willing to bet on someone new like Flores because of the state of the economy and other issues under the current leadership.
“A lot of voters in her district woke up and realized, ‘Wait, I do align with what she’s saying, I do understand what she is saying, and that must mean I’m a Republican,'” Enriquez said. His group has more than 100 active volunteers in the Rio Grande Valley.
The GOP hasn't always sent in candidates that look like the community, but Flores does and understands it, Enriquez said.
Even though the race is more competitive than expected in a district favoring Democrats, Gonzalez told NBC News this week that he has in place a robust ground game with campaign workers who have knocked on more than 200,0000 doors and more than 60% of those answering have reacted positively.
His campaign work is overlapping with that of other Democrat campaigns, such as gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke and Texas state Senate candidate Morgan La Mantia, to multiply their forces.
“I still believe at the end of the day this is still a solid, moderate Democratic region,” González said.
A fighting chance
Of the three Latina Republicans running, Mónica De La Cruz, endorsed by former President Donald Trump and running in an adjacent congressional district, Texas' 15th, is considered the party's best chance to win. The GOP-led state Legislature made the district more Republican and carved González's home out of the district and into the 34th. Democrat Michelle Vallejo has struggled for financial support in the race against De La Cruz.
Republican Cassy Garcia is challenging nine-term incumbent Henry Cuéllar in Texas’ 28th Congressional District. It was made slightly more Democrat and has also been a tighter race than Democrats expected. But Cuellar has long had GOP supporters in the area because he's one of the few Democrats who opposes abortion and has been supportive of Border Patrol and law enforcement, bringing funding to the district as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
At stake in the races is the future of the Rio Grande Valley, a region that has long had higher poverty, lower median income, less access to higher education and the state’s oil revenues that fund it, lower wages, higher numbers of Latinos without health insurance and more limited industry.
The region’s economy is growing, but like other parts of the country, it has slowed as interest rates have risen, said Luis Torres, a senior business economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Communities in the border region depend greatly on the economy of Mexico as well, from tourism to the movement of goods and services. When Trump closed the border as a result of the Covid pandemic, it created great fear of a collapse in the area’s economy. Torres said federal Covid relief aid kept the region from more suffering.
Being in South Texas, the districts are also affected by immigration and spending on border security, although the region also relies on counties not directly on the border that are more rural, with economies tied to agriculture.
While Flores has accused Democrats of wanting to “defund” law enforcement and Border Patrol, González is telling voters that Republicans want to defund Social Security and Medicare.
Soon after being sworn in to Congress, Flores voted against the landmark gun safety bill pushed through Congress by Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican. The bill was passed and signed into law a little more than a month after 19 children and two teachers were killed in the school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde.
Flores has also handed Democrats plenty of fodder to use against her with tweets repeating lies that the 2020 election was stolen, sharing QAnon conspiracy theories and using its hashtags and tweeting that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was caused by antifa and “infiltrators,” CNN reported and Media Matters documented.
“I’ve normally voted Democrat, so when I see someone like Mayra who was OK with what happened Jan. 6, that’s not something I would ever support,” said Esmeralda García Barjas, 44, a Brownsville special education resource teacher who also is volunteering with AFT.
Civil engineer Francisco Medrano Jr., 40, of Harlingen, said the criticism of Flores' Jan. 6 Capitol attack tweets won't keep him from voting for her, since he usually votes Republican and knows nothing about González.
"I don't see that guy much. All I see is Mayra or a Mayra smear campaign," he said.
At the same time, however, Medrano said President Joe Biden has been "winning me over" with his student loan forgiveness, which he said would seem to benefit residents in the Rio Grande Valley where there is high poverty.
More focus, more dollars
The greater attention on the region has meant multimillion dollar spending on the races, mostly from outside groups.
According to data from Ad Impact, Republicans and their supporting groups and PACs are outspending Democrats and their allies in all three races as of last Tuesday. The most drastic difference is in Texas’ 15th, where those supporting Republican De La Cruz had spent about $3.3 million to the Democrats’ about $837,000 as of Tuesday.
The most money is being spent in the Cuellar-Garcia race, a total of $9.2 million, with the GOP spending slightly ahead, $4.7 million, to Democrats’ $4.5 million. Also, Republicans spent $1.2 million in Spanish-language ads in the three races, while Democrats have spent $1.7 million.
The spending is new for the region and contrasts sharply with years of more locally focused races and issues. The negativity of the ads could backfire among some residents.
Raul Altamirano, 74, a retired postal carrier from Brownsville, said he voted Republican last year. This year he’s seen a marked difference in advertising from encouragement to go vote to backbiting, he said.
"All I see is everybody putting everybody down, throwing stones," Altamirano said.
Medrano was equally unhappy with the tone of the campaigns. “I think one side, it’s conservative but over the top. The other side is liberal,” he said. “We need balance.”