Republicans already liked their chances in South Texas in November, but the Tuesday primary gave them even more reason to be optimistic.

Fueled by more candidates and outreach, GOP turnout more than doubled in the Rio Grande Valley compared with the last midterm primary, and the party’s most favored candidates advanced across several down-ballot races there.

The Republican National Committee called it a “historic day for South Texas.” The National Republican Congressional Committee deemed it “Democrats’ terrible week in South Texas.” And the Texas GOP celebrated in a series of tweets Monday.

“In 2020 Republican turnout in these areas was deemed a political earthquake,” the party said. “What should we call it now?”

To be sure, Democrats in the region still had higher turnout, but Republicans celebrated the narrowing of the gap. Despite the improvement, nearly 87% of registered voters in the Rio Grande Valley did not vote in the primary, similar to the rate in 2018.

 

Democrats have acknowledged for months that they need to do better in South Texas, a predominantly Hispanic region where President Joe Biden underperformed in 2020. That set the stage for an aggressive Republican offensive there this year, bolstered by redistricting, which packed more Trump voters into some of the districts the GOP was already targeting.

Richard Gonzales, the new incoming chair of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party, said local Democrats there “still do have quite a substantial gap between the two, but … it’s slowly closing itself up.”

He compared the Democrats’ dilemma to a ship with a leak, saying, “If this doesn’t open up your eyes to show that we’ve got a serious problem … it’s only gonna continue to get water in, and the boat’s eventually just gonna sink.”

Republicans more than doubled their primary turnout in the four counties — Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy — that make up the Rio Grande Valley from 2018 to 2022, while Democratic primary turnout was virtually the same. Democrats outvoted Republicans there by a wide margin Tuesday — about 35,000 ballots — but that deficit narrowed from roughly 49,000 in the last midterm.

The comparison is based on turnout by each party in the top-of-the-ticket race — governor this year — which often draws the most voters in a county. However, local races can sometimes attract more voters, especially in South Texas, and serve as the higher number.

There was similar movement in other parts of South Texas. In Webb County, home to Laredo, Democratic primary turnout actually dipped 16% from 2018, despite local U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s nationally targeted Democratic primary. Republicans, meanwhile, doubled their turnout there. Still, Democrats continued to make up an overwhelming majority of the total primary ballots cast there Tuesday.

In Nueces County, home to Corpus Christi, Republican and Democratic primary voters were close to even in 2018. But on Tuesday, Republicans outvoted Democrats, with Republicans making up 58% of primary ballots Tuesday and Democrats comprising 42%.

Republicans had on their side two statewide primaries — for governor and attorney general — where campaigns spent tens of millions of dollars to mobilize GOP voters. But even then, the increase in Republican primary turnout statewide — 25% — was far more modest than the increase in the Rio Grande Valley.

South Texas Democrats also had some high-profile primaries that should have driven turnout, like Cuellar’s primary and a rare open Texas Senate seat based in Cameron County.

“We had several competitive primaries, but it’s a testament to the fact that if you believe in something, you never give up,” said Adrienne Peña Garza, chair of the Hidalgo County GOP. She traced the trajectory back to 2010, when her dad, former state Rep. Aaron Peña, switched parties. He did not seek reelection two years later due to redistricting, but his political comeback began Tuesday when he won the GOP primary for a seat on a state appeals court.

Abel Prado, executive director of Cambio Texas, a progressive organizing group based in Edinburg, noted the Valley is still solidly blue, as shown by Democrats continuing to widely outvote Republicans in the primary. He gave the GOP credit for recruiting candidates this cycle in South Texas and keeping its voters engaged but said they still have a long way to go.

“All props to them, an increase is an increase,” Prado said, “but making your way up the hill doesn’t mean you’re at the top of the hill.”

Republicans were especially excited about Starr County. After only 15 people voted in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate there in 2018, 1,089 turned out for the GOP primary for governor there Tuesday — an increase of more than 7,000%. Not only did the Republican primary turnout spike, but the Democratic primary turnout dropped by nearly half.

 

There were at least a couple of factors driving Republicans to the polls. The county is home to state Rep. Ryan Guillen, a longtime Democrat who switched to the GOP last year — and romped in Starr County, getting more votes there Tuesday than even the governor did.

Starr County was also a target of Project Red Texas, a Republican group that recruited 125 candidates for local offices across South Texas. That gave Republicans new reasons to turn out in places like Starr County, which had Republicans running for five county offices, some of them contested, after a dearth of GOP contenders in 2018.

“It’s tough to win the lottery, but it’s impossible unless you buy a ticket,” said Wayne Hamilton, the veteran Republican operative who leads the project. “That’s what I think we’re seeing here. When people show up to the game, they at least have a chance of winning. Previously, we were losing by default.”

Candidates

Beyond turnout, Republicans in Austin and Washington were pleased with the first-place finishers in four key South Texas primaries — all Hispanic women. Monica De La Cruz won her crowded primary outright for the 15th Congressional District, a toss-up open seat anchored in the Valley, as did Mayra Flores, running for the neighboring 34th Congressional District. That district is more Democratic-leaning, but Republicans believe Flores still has a chance with a wave election brewing.

In the 28th Congressional District anchored in Laredo, Cassy Garcia, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, placed first in her seven-way primary and advanced to a runoff against Sandra Whitten, the 2020 GOP nominee for the seat. It is currently held by Cuellar, who ran in the state’s highest-profile primary and was forced into a runoff against Jessica Cisneros, the progressive challenger who first took him on in 2020.

While the 28th District is not the most competitive district in November on paper, Republicans are increasingly bullish about their chances there regardless of who the Democratic nominee is. They believe Cisneros is too liberal for the district and Cuellar too damaged by the FBI raid of his home in January.

They are also buoyed by the strength of Garcia’s candidacy. She has been endorsed by the National Border Patrol Council, which previously backed Cuellar.

Farther down the ballot, a fourth Hispanic woman, Janie Lopez, won resoundingly in the Republican primary for Texas House District 37, a new battleground seat that GOP mapmakers placed in the Rio Grande Valley. Lopez, a San Benito school board member backed by top Republican groups in Austin like the Associated Republicans of Texas, defeated one primary opponent with nearly 70% of the vote.

In another major down-ballot race, Republican Adam Hinojosa won outright in his party’s primary for state Senate District 27, where Democratic Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville is retiring. Two Democrats, Sara Stapleton-Barrera and Morgan LaMantia, advanced to a runoff for the seat.

The district is Democratic-leaning, and it remains to be seen how hard Republicans in Austin will work to flip it in November. It was the one open state Senate seat where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not handpick a candidate in the primary, though he said in a recent interview he viewed the seat as winnable in November and was just waiting to see how the GOP primary played out.

Rodrigo Moreno is a political consultant in the Rio Grande Valley who has worked for both parties but helped Democrats on Tuesday. He said local Republicans are more organized than previously and Democrats are “watching [them] like a hawk,” worried about the trends.

“In the Valley, it’s not that [voters are] far right or far left,” Moreno said. “They’re becoming a little more aware of the situation we’re in right now, and they’re looking a little more towards a candidate than a party.”

Mandi Cai contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy.

Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Patrick Svitek is the primary political correspondent for The Texas Tribune and editor of The Blast, the Tribune's subscription-only daily newsletter for political insiders.