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Mayra Flores could win. Democrats will have themselves to blame.

Jack Herrera, 1:18 p.m.

Regardless of the results, the story of the race for the thirty-fourth congressional district in South Texas is the meteoric rise of Republican Mayra Flores. On paper, the newly redrawn precinct is deep blue: President Biden would have won by nearly 16 points in 2020. When Flores, a 36-year-old first-time candidate, won the GOP primary in March, she seemed destined to get blown out of the water in November by Democratic Representative Vicente Gonzalez, who had already raised $1.5 million more than Flores had raised. Neither the national media nor the National Republicans gave Flores much attention. But now, on Election Day, Flores has raised nearly $4 million, made frequent appearances on Fox News, been featured in the New York Times, and hosted rallies with Sen. Ted Cruz and other Republican luminaries. Even more shocking: As voters line up, Flores and Gonzalez are neck and neck in the polls.

Flores’ incredible turn of fortune has a lot to do with her innate political savvy: she turned out to be a brilliant activist. But she owes much of her success to a gift from Democratic congressman Filemón Vela.

Ahead of the 2022 primary, Thirty-fourth incumbent Vela announced he would retire at the end of his term. Vela’s good friend, Representative Vicente Gonzalez—who represented the neighboring Fifteenth District—decided to run in the Thirty-fourth instead, to win the seat that Vela said was vacant. But just after the primaries, Vela made a puzzling decision that dealt a serious blow to Gonzalez, announcing that he would retire before the end of his term to take up a high-paying position at the nation’s largest lobbying firm. When Gov. Greg Abbott called a special election in June to fill the 34th void, Democrats were left in disarray with no one to run in that race. It made no sense for Gonzalez to give up his own seat to run in the special election. Meanwhile, Flores already had a campaign operation underway. The jostled Democrats nominated a former county commissioner to replace Gonzalez. Republican money began to flow behind Flores, while national Democrats largely shrugged off the special election. Flores picked up an easy win.

When I first met Flores in January at an evangelical cafe in McAllen, she was best known as a local conservative influencer married to a Border Patrol agent. Flores’ Instagram had thousands of followers who subscribed to her far-right content on immigration and abortion, as well as the occasional QAnon hashtag. By the time I sat down with Flores in September, during a public panel at the Texas Tribune’s TribFest, she was best known by her official title: Congresswoman Mayra Flores.

Running now for reelection instead of a simple election, Flores has all the advantages of the office. The national party lined up behind her and threw millions into her race. She also appears to have had some media training: when asked about QAnon today, she disavows the conspiracy theory.

Much of Flores’ success has to do with his talent for using his personal background to connect with voters. Flores was born in Tamaulipas, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States, where she worked in the cotton fields alongside her parents (Flores’ father is an American citizen). Today, Flores is the first-ever Mexican-born woman to serve in Congress. She criticized Democrats for taking voters like her — immigrants, Latinas, workers — for granted.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, struggled to gain ground. Despite also being a starter, Gonzalez — a moderate Democrat and self-described “blue dog” — hasn’t garnered the same national media attention as Flores. His “Vincent with the People” (“Vicente with the People”) garden signs look naïve and insubstantial next to the scorched earth countryside of Flores against him. Over the summer, Flores destroyed it in the fundraising arms race, bringing in $1.6 million compared to Gonzalez’s $497,000. (Gonzalez raised about $2.9 million in total.)

Flores could well win this election, and if she does, Republicans will trumpet her victory in a heavily Democratic district as proof that the GOP is winning over Hispanic voters. This will certainly be partly true. But the real story behind a Flores victory would be that the Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot.

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