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By Jay Caspian Kang
Last week, Mayra Flores, a Republican candidate for Congress who was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States at the age of 6, flipped a congressional seat in a region of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas that had voted Democrat for 150 years. Flores’s victory came with the usual bluster from the G.O.P. and all the head-scratching from the national media that accompanies rightward voting swings in any nonwhite population. “G.O.P. wins big in Rio Grande Valley district. Does it portend shift of Hispanic voters?” the Fort Worth Star-Telegram asked in a headline. The conservative National Review called Flores’s victory “An Earthquake in South Texas” and said that her win “portends a major shift in the major American political landscape.”
Before I get into my own portending, let me offer up a bundle of caveats. This was an extremely low-turnout special election for a vacated congressional seat that will once again be up for grabs this November. The lines of the district will be significantly different in a few months — Flores won over an electorate that Joe Biden won by four points back in 2020. In November, Flores will be in the odd position of being a near-five-month incumbent running in a newly drawn district that, had it existed in 2020, Biden would have won by 15.5 points. This is presumably why Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (D.C.C.C.), dismissed Flores’s victory as a “rental” seat.
So we can and should throw some cold water on the grand claims about what this electoral result means for the future of the Republican Party. Flores’s campaign outraised that of her Democratic opponent Dan Sanchez by a 16-to-1 margin. It also spent more than $1 million on television ads. The imbalance in spending and resources was so extreme that after the results had come in, Sanchez’s campaign manager said in a statement, “The D.C.C.C., D.N.C. and other associated national committees have failed at their single purpose of existence: winning elections.”
I think it’s perfectly fair to take Robinson and the D.C.C.C. at their word when they say that they did not think it was worth expending too much effort on a seat that will almost certainly swing back to Democrats at the start of 2023. What seems far more interesting to me is why the G.O.P. put so much effort into securing Flores’s victory. Why did they care?
The simple answer is that since the 2020 general election showed surprising gains for the G.O.P. among Latino voters, especially in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley, Republicans have spent a considerable amount of time and money to turn what ultimately might have been an electoral blip into a national reality. They wanted Mayra Flores to win because it’s good for Republicans to show that they can win seats in districts like this one, with an 85 percent Latino population.
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