Retiring Democratic Representative Filemon Vela’s decision to resign from his seat early is sending shockwaves throughout Washington. With South Texas being ground zero for the surprising rightward trend of Hispanic voters in 2020, what was once the safest bet for South Texas Democrats now looks somewhat less firm. With a special election set in this Biden+4 seat, all eyes will be on the Rio Grande Valley as the site of the first genuinely competitive special election of the Biden presidency.
2020 Election and Redistricting
Before 2020, TX34 was seen as a safe Democratic bet, like the other two Rio Grande Valley seats. The seat, stretching from Cameron and Hidalgo Counties on the border to rural counties north of Corpus Christi, voted for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton by margins of over 20%. All of this changed in 2020, as Joe Biden only won the seat by a margin of around 4%. However, unlike in the more competitive 15th district, incumbent Filemon Vela decisively outran Biden and won by around 14%.
In redistricting, TX34 was redrawn to be the safest of the Rio Grande Valley seats for Democrats – Biden would have won the new design by around 15%, owing to its absorption of much of Hidalgo County. Moreover, Vela’s early decision to retire prompted the incumbent Democrat in TX15, Vincente Gonzalez, to carpetbag and run in the 34th. These factors are why we have TX34 rated as Likely Democratic for the November election, a rating we are holding on for now.
An Empty Democratic Field
However, as Gonzalez is currently a member of Congress, he will be unable to run in the special election – and if he did, it would simply vacate TX15 to have its own special election. Because of this, the upcoming special election will have a Democratic candidate that is, at best, a rental for a few months. In contrast, Republicans likely already have their candidate – Mayra Flores, who cleared her primary for the general election with over 60% of the vote. While Flores remains an underdog in the general election under the new lines, a win in the special would set her up as an incumbent, which could provide some advantages.
This unique dynamic presents a strong opportunity for both Republicans in general and for Flores. The national environment remains quite poor for Joe Biden (RealClearPolitics has Biden underwater by 13%, with an average approval rating of only 41%). Biden is also wildly unpopular in Texas; a February poll from UT Austin found his approval rating to be 36-52, and a special election last year in the Trump+3 TX06 saw Democrats record only 37% of the vote and fail to make the runoff. Taking all these factors into account, we’re starting the upcoming Texas 34th special election as a Tossup.
The Special Election Format
The date for the special election has yet to be decided, and it won’t be known until Vela officially resigns from Congress in the coming weeks. Like all special elections in Texas, the race will initially be held as a “jungle primary”, with all candidates from all parties appearing on a single primary ballot. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote (50%+1 vote), a runoff will be held between the top-two finishers in the primary.