GOP Win Says More About Filemon Vela than a South Texas ‘Red Wave’

When Congressman Filemon Vela decamped for K Street, he created a predictable opportunity for a Republican upset in the Valley.


Mayra Flores made history Tuesday night by winning the special election for the 34th congressional district, a Democratic stronghold that stretches from Brownsville up east of San Antonio. In doing so, Flores became the first Latina to ever represent the Rio Grande Valley in Congress and the first Republican to do so since Reconstruction. 

Flores, a Mexican immigrant, won the race outright with nearly 51 percent of the vote and avoided a runoff. She’ll serve the remaining six months left in the congressional term. Democratic candidate Dan Sanchez, a former Cameron County commissioner, trailed with 43 percent. Flores’ victory is a boost for state and national Republicans eager to gain ground along the Texas border. 

The win, Republicans will say, is proof that the inroads that former President Donald Trump made among Hispanic voters in South Texas were no mere fluke, and that the long-blue region is on the verge of a historic political realignment. “Congresswoman-Elect Mayra Flores and the people of Texas have a message for Joe Biden!” Flores’ campaign tweeted. “The RED Tsunami is here!”

But the significance of the win in terms of the GOP’s prospects in South Texas is filled with caveats. The only reason that Republicans had a chance to pull off this upset was because Democratic Congressman Filemon Vela, who represented the district for four terms, abruptly announced in March that he was resigning his seat early to take a job with the powerful K Street lobbying firm Akin Gump. 

Vela, who won reelection in 2020 by 13 points, had already announced that he planned to retire, but his premature swing through the revolving door prompted a special election scenario that was ripe for a Republican pickup. Texas Democrats have a terrible track record when it comes to winning special election races in predominantly Latino, traditionally blue districts.  

National Republicans pumped significant resources into the special election race while the national Democratic party only dipped its toe in. The race was a predictably low-turnout affair with just 7 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot.

But the real test of South Texas GOP strength will come in November, when Flores faces Congressman Vicente Gonzalez in the general election race for a newly redrawn 34th district. Her odds are far lower then. The district, as currently drawn, went for Biden by four points in 2020, but come November, candidates will be competing on a redrawn map that would have gone for Biden by 15 points. Gonzalez opted to switch seats after Republicans targeted his current seat, centered in neighboring Hidalgo County, in redistricting. The GOP is favored to win that seat in November. 

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Flores campaigned in the special election on her story as an immigrant from Mexico and the wife of a Border Patrol agent, blasting national Democrats for selling out the Valley. Sanchez, the Democrat, tried to cast Flores as an extreme Trumpist. Flores ended up narrowly winning Cameron County, one of the bluest counties in the state, by a point. 

Democrats took pains to downplay the significance of the special election win. State party chair Gilberto Hinojosa, who is from Brownsville and has faced internal criticism over Dems’ backslide in South Texas, claimed Republicans were only able to snatch the seat with the help of outside dark money and Governor Greg Abbott’s control of the special election date. 

“Tonight’s disappointing news aside, we applaud Dan Sanchez and his team for their hard-fought grassroots campaign – and for exposing the truth about the Republicans who purchased this seat: that they’re just using the working-class Hispanic families of the Rio Grande Valley as pawns in their partisan culture wars,” Hinojosa wrote in a statement. “In January 2023, this seat will rightfully return to Democratic hands.”

What he didn’t mention is the seat almost surely wouldn’t have left Democratic hands in the first place if not for Vela cashing in on K Street. 

The former congressman can’t directly lobby his former colleagues on the Hill for a year, but he can lobby the executive branch. After winning in 2020, President Joe Biden named Vela a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. He is currently registered as a lobbyist for the Port of Corpus Christi Authority, which is seeking a massive expansion project. 

Vela did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment about Republicans seizing his vacated seat in the special election.