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Republicans, bullish on South Texas, weigh how hard to compete for a state Senate seat there

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Republicans, bullish on South Texas, weigh how hard to compete for a state Senate seat there” 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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Addressing a Hidalgo County GOP dinner last month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick singled out for praise a friendly Democrat in the crowd, retiring state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville.

Patrick said Lucio, the most moderate Democrat in the Senate, “voted more for conservative causes than one or two of my Republicans” and “never ever let me down when I needed a vote.”

Then, in the next breath, Patrick said Republicans need to capture Lucio’s seat.

“Adam Hinojosa, wherever you’re sitting, you need to win that district,” Patrick said, referring to the GOP nominee, “because we can win that district now that [Lucio]’s retired.”

The scene helped illustrate the unique dynamics both parties now face in Texas Senate District 27, which is the only competitive Senate district in November — and just so happens to be in South Texas. Republicans have high hopes in the region this cycle after former President Donald Trump fared surprisingly well there in 2020 and the GOP flipped a congressional seat there in a June special election.

After a sleepy primary in Senate District 27 — at least compared to the Democratic side — Republicans intent on making gains among Hispanic Texans are starting to pay more attention to the race, sensing an opportunity that is too good to pass up in the current environment.

Still, it remains to be seen if Republicans will prioritize the contest as much as others in the region. They are up against a formidable Democratic nominee in Morgan LaMantia, a McAllen lawyer whose whose family runs the L&F beer distributor — and who spent over $3 million to win her party’s nomination while making bipartisan appeals that could pay off in November.

Redistricting is fueling the GOP optimism in the district — it is now a seat that President Joe Biden would have carried hypothetically in 2020 by fewer than 7 percentage points — but so is the broader GOP offensive in the region, which got a shot of momentum in June when Republican Mayra Flores won a congressional seat there. More notably, Flores won the longtime Democratic stronghold that anchors the district — Cameron County — which is also the biggest county in SD-27.

Hinojosa said Flores’ win let voters “know this is possible.” He added that he has had “great conversations” with Patrick about policy, including the issue that has so endeared the lieutenant governor to Lucio — his willingness to buck his party and staunchly oppose abortion. When Lucio announced his retirement last year, Patrick issued a statement that alluded to Lucio’s anti-abortion record and said he hoped “the new Senator from his district will have the courage to continue Sen. Lucio’s legacy.”

“I believe [Patrick] as well as a lot of statewide Republicans understand the opportunity here,” Hinojosa said. “It’s very real.”

Patrick stayed out of the primary in the district — a conspicuous absence given that he engaged aggressively in the nominating contests for every other open Senate seat. But he seems to have focused more on the race now that Hinojosa is the nominee, shouting him out twice at the Hidalgo County GOP Lincoln Reagan Dinner and promising to “do everything I can to help” make the Rio Grande Valley a “Republican stronghold.”

Gov. Greg Abbott, whose campaign is especially focused on South Texas, similarly kept quiet during the primary but sees an opening in the general election. His campaign had Hinojosa participate in a news conference countering the state Democratic convention last week in Dallas, and while Abbott has not made any formal endorsements for the November election yet, his top political strategist, Dave Carney, said SD-27 “is in the heart of our southern Texas region and we’re gonna do everything we can to turn out our voters there.”

​“It’s definitely a winnable seat,” Carney said.

Lucio, for his part, said it is “hard to say” how competitive the race will be until closer to November. In an interview, he reiterated his support for LaMantia, recalling how her grandfather endorsed him when he first ran for Senate in 1990, but he also called Hinojosa “a very fine gentleman.”

“I don’t know how much the party’s gonna pour into his campaign,” Lucio said, “but if it’s significant, he’ll give her a very good race for her money.”

Lucio endorsed LaMantia back during her primary, but she distanced herself from some of his less popular positions among fellow Democrats, namely his anti-abortion record. While it may have helped her emerge as the Democratic nominee, it is now one of the biggest contrasts that Hinojosa is citing for the November election.

“I’m pro-life and she is very much not pro-life,” Hinojosa said. “In a district where our Democrat Sen. Eddie Lucio is very pro-life, that’s a pretty drastic shift [if voters elect LaMantia].”

At least financially, Hinojosa is at a huge disadvantage in the race. Compared to her seven-figure machine, he raised less than $50,000 as of June 30 and loaned himself $88,000. He had a little over $5,000 cash on hand at the end of June; LaMantia had $58,000.

LaMantia has nonetheless been aware that even after a competitive Democratic primary, she may have to work hard to defend the district in the general election. She has campaigned hard on her business experience and spent her primary runoff criticizing both parties for inaction on border problems. In one TV ad, she told Biden, who is deeply unpopular all over Texas, that his administration has “no plan” for the border.

LaMantia’s runoff opponent, Sara Stapleton-Barrera, accused LaMantia of echoing Republican talking points, but LaMantia’s big-spending campaign plowed its way to a 14-percentage-point victory in May.

Still, it is an open question whether Republicans are ready to fight as hard in SD-27 as they are in other overlapping districts. For example, they are expected to battle to get Flores reelected to Congress in November, when she faces U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, in a bluer district, and state House leadership is all in on electing Republican Janie Lopez to a new battleground seat in Cameron County.

One of Lopez’s major backers, the Associated Republicans of Texas, has not endorsed Hinojosa yet, but its vice president, Aaron De Leon, said the group is “looking to expand the map any way we can.”

Texans for Lawsuit Reform, another big-spending group based in Austin, has already backed LaMantia with $115,000 in contributions throughout her Democratic primary and runoff. But the tort reform group is close to Republican leadership, and it is unclear how it will navigate the general election in Senate District 27. Asked about the race, a spokesperson said the group has not made any decisions about general election endorsements yet.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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