Chastened by some disappointing special election results across the country since Donald Trump became president, Republicans got a burst of good news this week in a Texas contest.
Tuesday’s special election victory by Pete Flores (pictured above) came against a former congressman in a heavily minority state Senate district in the San Antonio area, which Democrats had held for 139 years.
It gives the GOP a valuable talking point with midterm elections now less than two months away and control of Congress at stake.
“There clearly is a message here for the midterms,” James Dickey, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, told LifeZette in an interview. “As long as we do what is necessary and turn out Republicans, we’re going to have a pro-Republican result.”
Flores, a former Texas state game commissioner, pulled 53 percent of the vote against Democrat Pete Gallego. The victory increases the Republican majority in the state Senate; it’s now 21 to 10.
Republican officials and independent observers said Flores had a number of factors going for him that the GOP will not be able to count on in other races. Experts regard Flores as a particularly effective candidate. As Dickey put it, he was an “amazing candidate who worked very, very hard.”
The biggest names in Texas Republican politics, from popular Gov. Greg Abbott on down, lent support to Flores.
And it certainly did not hurt that the previous Democratic incumbent, Carlos Uresti, vacated the seat early after his conviction on charges of helping a company he co-owned run a Ponzi scheme.
Still, the 19th District is not exactly fertile ground for the Republican Party. Stretching from San Antonio to the New Mexico state line and extending south to the Mexican border, the district is poor and Latino. The per capita income is just $19,508, and 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty threshold.
Only half the residents speak English exclusively, and nearly one in five of the other half speak little or no English.
“This is a very Democratic district,” Andrew Sanders, a political science professor at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, told LifeZette. “Democrats have held it, basically, as long as it’s existed — 100-some years.”
In addition to facing a strong candidate who speaks Spanish and is well-known in the district, Gallego ran a lackluster campaign, Sanders said. He said the Democrat was late to TV and was outspent on radio.
Sanders said it is uncertain whether the results translate to the November elections, including a pair of closely watched contests in Texas — challenges to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Republican Rep. Will Hurd.
“That’s kind of the major question for both parties … It should serve as a wake-up call for Democrats,” he said.
The upset contradicts a narrative that has built up over the past year and a half that energized Democrats are about to launch a blue wave that will sweep Republicans out of power. Counting special and regular elections for federal, state and local races, Democrats have flipped 46 offices across the country previously held by Republicans, according to data tracked by Daily Kos.
Meanwhile, Flores’ win marked just the eighth time during that period that Republicans have managed to turn a blue seat. Republicans hope to build on Tuesday’s result.
“I think it does challenge it [the conventional wisdom] to some degree,” said Matt Mackowiak, a political strategist who advised Flores during the campaign.
Mackowiak said he has been skeptical of the notion that Republicans are destined to get crushed in the midterms. He said Democrats have promoted that narrative both to demoralize Republicans and to help their own candidates raise money.
Democrats can win close races if Republican turnout falls off. Raising GOP turnout to normal levels “can wash a lot of that away,” he told LifeZette.
Mackowiak cautioned that all elections are different, however, and that candidate quality matters. He said Flores benefited from a unified GOP and a badly divided opposition. Gallego and fellow Democrat Roland Gutierrez spent $650,000 attacking each other before the first round of voting in July, he said.
Flores floated above the internecine warfare to finish first in round one and then worked his tail off, Mackowiak said.
“We had a really, really good candidate who was a great fit for this district.”
“We had a really, really good candidate who was a great fit for this district,” he said.
Mackowiak said the victory should boost Cruz, who faces a stronger than expected challenge from Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke. He said it demonstrates that talk of Texas turning blue this year is “almost surely fantasy.”
He added that it could be even more meaningful for Hurd, who unseated Gallego in 2014 and then defeated him in a rematch in 2016. Hurd failed to exceed 50 percent in both races, though, and faces a stiff challenge from Iraq war veteran Gina Ortiz Jones. Some 80 percent of the district overlaps with the state Senate district.
Dickey, the Texas GOP chairman, said he feels good about the party’s midterm prospects — in the Lone Star State, at least.
“It is transferable [to other states], but it takes a lot of work to make it happen beyond Texas,” he said.
Watch Flores talk about his victory: