Rio Grande Valley Voters Face Stark Choices in May Runoffs

From Henry Cuellar’s reelection to the fight to succeed Eddie Lucio, multiple progressive women advance to runoffs as the RGV ponders its political status quo.

by

The Rio Grande Valley, the four-county region at Texas’ southern tip, tends to elect a certain kind of Democrat: generally men, often conservative on issues from abortion to fossil fuels. This year, a new class of contenders including strong women candidates and progressives—along with an invigorated GOP—are threatening that status quo. Tuesday’s primary results have only sharpened these political contrasts, offering Valley voters a number of stark choices in the May 24 runoffs. 

On the Democratic side in Congressional District 15—a McAllen-based seat that Republicans will be competing hard for this year—two candidates emerged from a sprawling field. Ruben Ramirez, leading with about 28 percent of the vote, is an Army veteran who actively grabbed the race’s right lane. In a recent forum, he opposed legalizing marijuana and said: “I’m a South Texas Democrat. … We tend to be more moderate and more conservative in our view.”

The other CD-15 hopeful headed for Texas’ May runoff appears to be Michelle Vallejo, the co-owner of a local pulga who was recruited by the progressive group LUPE Votes. Vallejo has adopted LUPE’s platform, which includes Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and an anti-war foreign policy. Vallejo narrowly edged out another moderate Democrat for second place Tuesday night.

In state Senate District 27, the Brownsville-based seat long held by the socially reactionary Eddie Lucio Jr., the field broke along similar lines. Morgan LaMantia, the scion of a local politically connected beer dynasty, was the top vote-getter with some 34 percent. Unlike Lucio, LaMantia is liberal on abortion and LGBTQ issues, but Lucio—long supported by her family—backed her anyway. LaMantia was also backed by Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a tort reform group that supported Lucio and fights to stop workers and consumers from suing over injuries, and LaMantia previously donated to Republican candidates. She got a primary boost from her family to the tune of $1.5 million in loans.

The other SD-27 candidate in the runoff is Sara Stapleton Barrera. Generally seen as the most progressive choice, Stapleton Barrera previously pushed Lucio to a runoff in 2020; she’s a trial lawyer who opposes tort reform and has also opposed a trio of liquefied natural gas projects east of Brownsville. “We’re proving time again that these elections are not about the money and fancy endorsements, but it’s about the power of the people,” said Stapleton Barrera in a text Wednesday. In third place, and thus out of the running, came sitting Brownsville state Representative Alex Dominguez. 

Meanwhile, further upriver in Congressional District 28—which snags the Valley’s Starr County—conservative incumbent Henry Cuellar and progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros look headed to a runoff after a roller-coaster election night during which both candidates appeared at times to have a chance of winning outright. A third candidate, progressive Tannya Benavides, garnered a couple thousand votes, arguably hurting Cisneros’ chance at a Tuesday victory. 

None of those three seats have been held by a woman before. 

On the Republican side, repeat CD-15 candidate Monica De La Cruz easily bested her primary competition and looks forward to November; the race is a top GOP target after a friendly redistricting last year. Starr County state Representative Ryan Guillen, who recently switched parties from Democrat to Republican, also proved amenable to GOP voters, avoiding a runoff with a clear majority.