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Candidates face off in South Texas special election to replace Democratic U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Candidates face off in South Texas special election to replace Democratic U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Four candidates — two Democrats and two Republicans — are facing off Tuesday night in a special election for a congressional seat in South Texas.

The special election in the 34th District was triggered by U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s decision to resign in March to work for the lobbying firm Akin Gump. The Brownsville Democrat had already announced he was not seeking reelection.

The main GOP candidate, Mayra Flores, and her allies have spent nearly $1 million on an aggressive TV ad campaign. Republicans are trying to flip the seat to give them an edge in the November race for Vela’s open seat. Whoever wins the special election race will hold it only until January.

Flores outraised her toughest Democratic competition, Harlingen attorney Dan Sanchez, by 16 to 1 on the only major campaign finance report of the special election. The special election could go to a late-summer runoff given the presence of two other, lesser-known candidates on the ballot, Democrat Rene Coronado and Republican Juana “Janie” Cantu-Cabrera.

Flores won the Republican primary to vie for the open seat in November. U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, who will attempt to switch districts due to redistricting, is the Democratic nominee for Vela’s seat this fall. He’s not running in the special election.

National Democrats have largely steered clear of the special election, deeming it too low-stakes. They argue a Flores win would be a pyrrhic victory given that the special election is being held under the previous, less competitive lines of the district, which President Joe Biden won by 4 percentage points. Redistricting made the district more comfortable for Democrats in November, when Flores will also have to deal with a more established opponent in Gonzalez.

Flores campaigned hard on her story as the wife of a Border Patrol agent and as a Mexican immigrant whose parents brought her to the United States as a young child. She mostly ignored Sanchez but took a sharp tone against Washington, D.C., Democrats in general. In one of her TV ads, she said the Rio Grande Valley is “under attack” at the border and promised not to let the “compadrismo” — cronyism — “in Washington ruin our communities.”

Sanchez also played up his background, starting with his upbringing on his family farm and later his long career in public service. But he and his allies did not ignore Flores, painting her as an extremist acolyte of former President Donald Trump due to her past social media activity that cast doubt on the 2020 election results and included hashtags for the QAnon conspiracy movement.

Flores had the backing of top Texas Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, while Sanchez’s biggest supporters among elected officials were Gonzalez and Vela. Both Flores and Sanchez were endorsed by their respective state party chairs and vice chairs.

Check back here for election updates.

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