Challengers face uphill battle in Democratic stronghold of South Texas border

Border Report Tour

3 incumbent congressmen not expected to lose seats on Nov. 3

LAREDO, Texas (Border Report) — Texas might be red, but the deep South Texas border, has long been blue.

Democrats have long controlled congressional representation for this region. And those in power tend to stay in power, financially supported by those with money and conservative views but who support the Democrats knowing they will retain the office.

So it came as a surprise to many that longtime U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who is one of the more conservative Democrats in the House, narrowly won his primary election bid for Texas 28th Congressional District in March against newcomer Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration lawyer.

Cuellar from Laredo, who has served for eight terms, won the primary by just 2,690 votes. He received 52% to 48%, or 38,834 to 36,144 votes. It was closer than anyone had thought and it was clear that Cisneros had the ear of those opposed to border wall construction and environmental concerns.

So for the Nov. 3 general election, Cuellar told Border Report “We’re not taking anything for granted.” Although he added: “Yes, we are going to win this.”

And that’s likely, considering his opponent, Sandra Whitten, a 36-year-old homemaker who used to teach Mother’s Day Out preschool at her Baptist church, is also a newcomer to politics. Although she ran unopposed in the primary election, she received over 20,000 votes. But Republicans just don’t have the numbers in this sprawling district to likely turn it red on Election Day.

Border Report interviewed Whitten on Oct. 17 at Father Charles McNaboe Park in northwest Laredo. She has served the board overseeing the park that overlooks the Rio Grande for the past nine years. During a 20-minute interview, Whitten, the mother of four children ages almost 2 to 16, admitted this campaign has been an eye-opening experience, but she said she ran because she felt conservative values and voices were not being reflected in Washington, D.C. And she said that she believes this area is increasing with Republican voters, particularly among Hispanics who support President Donald Trump.

“There’s never been a voice. Congressman Cuellar has been our congressman for 16 years, and I’ve been here for 11 years and nothing has changed. There’s a lot of empty promises and needless broken dreams for the right people,” said Whitten, who is originally from Portsmouth, Virginia.

Her husband, Emannuel Whitten, is a U.S. Border Patrol agent, and as she spoke, an agent pulled up to the park and waved her down. She says she has a lot of support from Border Patrol agents who favor strong national security, the building of the border wall, and are still smarting from government shutdowns that furloughed Border Patrol agents, including her husband.

She accuses Cuellar of supporting the border wall to meet his political agenda. “He wants the wall when it’s politically convenient for him,” she said, pointing to Cuellar’s previous support of border wall funding in order to avert a government shutdown, and his recent votes against funding the border wall, which he calls a “14th Century solution to a 21st Century problem.”

Cuellar is arguably the most powerful member of Congress from South Texas. He is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, and one of only two Democrats from the Southwest border to sit on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which oversees the federal budget.

The 28th Congressional District geographically is the second-largest district in the Lone Star State — second in miles only to the 23rd Congressional District (which spans from West Texas to the Big Bend area and San Antonio, and which is an open race after U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, the only African-American Republican in the House, announced his retirement.)

The sprawling 28th Congressional District spans from Laredo east to Mission, in Hidalgo County, and north to a northeast section of San Antonio. Many miles are located on the border with Mexico, and Whitten claims Cuellar is out of touch when it comes to security issues this region is facing.

“I realized we could not sit silently any longer. I listened to Congressman Cuellar say there’s no problem on the southern border,” said Whitten, who claims “cartel drug runners” have litrally run across the fields at McNaboe Park while her young son was practicing football there.

“What is he sweeping under the rug so we don’t pay attention to?” she said. “I can actually say hey there is a problem on the border.”

Cuellar spoke with Border Report after an Oct. 13 news conference in Rio Grande City and expressed optimism in retaining his seat, saying he represents the values of his constituents, particularly those opposed to border wall construction. His hometown is Laredo, where his brother is sheriff of Webb County, and he has deep familial roots in the region.

“I feel very confident. I feel a lot of energy for Democrats,” Cuellar said. “I believe Congressman Vela will be back, Congressman Gonzalez will be back and I’m going to be back, too. We are also going to pick up a couple more Democratic seats for Texas.”

His South Texas colleagues, U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, and Filemon Vela Jr., both Democrats, are expected to win their districts, the 15th Congressional District, and 34th Congressional District, respectively.

Texas’ 15th Congressional District

Gonzalez is vying for his third-term, and represents a border region that includes McAllen, as well as ranchlands to the north where there is a growing contingency of conservative voters who are in favor of the border wall and more border security.

His opponent, Monica De La Cruz Hernandez, is pro-life and pro-guns, and she won 43% of the votes, 11,220, against the next top-earning Republican challenger during the primary election to face off in a run-off election where she prevailed. Her grandmother immigrated from Mexico and her grandfather was a first-generation to serve in the U.S. Navy.

“We need reform to keep people from coming in the wrong way, and a strong border to protect our American citizens. Listening to the expertise of the Border Patrol is key,” she wrote in response to Ballotpedia’s Candidate survey.

“I do feel confident in my reelection,” Gonzalez told Border Report on Oct. 14 as he was about to cast his ballot in his hometown of McAllen. “I’m very excited to see all the people coming out to vote. I think they’re voting for health care justice, they’re voting for more attention to our region after this horrific pandemic that hit our region, and we’re dying at three and four times the rate as the rate of the state.”

Hidalgo County, his base, has been a hotspot for COVID-19 and has had 35,485 cases and nearly 2,000 deaths — making it one of the worst areas in the state, and nation, for the novel virus.

Gonzalez, a successful lawyer who largely self-funded his first run for Congress, serves on the Financial Services Committee; Veterans Job Caucus and Hispanic Caucus.

Texas’ 34th Congressional District

Vela, a seven-term Democrat also serves on the Hispanic Caucus and often votes similarly with Gonzalez on issues. Vela, whose hometown is Brownsville, represents the 34th Congressional district, which spans from the Gulf of Mexico to Hidalgo County and runs 300 miles north to Gonzales County, and includes the iconic King Ranch. His father was one of the first Hispanic federal judges and his mother was the only woman to ever be mayor of Brownsville.

Vela serves on the House Armed Services Committee, and the House Agriculture Committee, where he is chairman of the General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee. He is also co-chair of the Congressional Border Caucus.

His Republican opponent is Rey Gonzalez Jr., a retired Air Force veteran, physician and lawyer, who unsuccessfully challenged Vela in 2018.

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