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National Republicans are zeroing in on Texas' 15th Congressional District as their top battleground here in 2022 — an opportunity to show the GOP can make inroads in South Texas on its way to reclaiming the House majority.
The Democratic incumbent, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, had a surprisingly close race last year as President Joe Biden underperformed across the region, and his 2020 challenger, Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez, is running again.
On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will endorse De La Cruz-Hernandez, an early show of support from the top House Republican that cements the contest's top-tier battleground status nationally.
"Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez is a successful small businesswoman who understands the needs and values of hard-working Texans," McCarthy said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. "Many pundits predicted Monica's opponent would easily win in 2020, but Monica's tenacity and relentless campaign came within 7,000 votes of defeating the Democrat incumbent. Monica is running for Congress again, and this time, she will win."
The 15th District is one of five that the National Republican Congressional Committee is targeting in Texas next year, including three in South Texas. The two others are the districts held by Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Houston, who flipped their seats in 2018 and held off nationally backed GOP challengers last year.
The lines of each district will likely change before the 2022 election due to redistricting, but for now, the 15th District, which is anchored in the Rio Grande Valley, seems to have captured the most national Republican interest. Biden carried it by less than 2 percentage points, the narrowest margin he had in a Democratic-held congressional district anywhere in the state.
The NRCC and Republican outside groups have continued to include Gonzalez in early ad campaigns for the 2022 cycle, and Gonzalez is the only one of the three South Texas lawmakers in the NRCC's crosshairs that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has placed on its list of “Frontline” members who are the most endangered for reelection.
Still, the DCCC is dismissive of De La Cruz-Hernandez. A DCCC spokesperson said in a statement for this story that while Gonzalez is working for his constituents, De La Cruz-Hernandez is "busy spreading conspiracy theories and being out-worked, out-raised, and out-smarted at every turn."
"If she’s the most serious candidate Republicans have to offer, flipping seats in South Texas will continue to be nothing but a pipe dream," said the spokesperson, Monica Robinson.
De La Cruz-Hernandez is an insurance agent in the Rio Grande Valley and co-owner of a company with her husband called Navi Business Group, which provides maintenance services for industrial facilities.
She surprised the political world when she came within 3 points of unseating Gonzalez, who has held the seat since 2017 and defeated his previous Republican challenger by 21 points. After the November election, De La Cruz-Hernandez alleged voter fraud, claiming that ineligible voters were allowed to cast ballots, but the Hidalgo County elections administrator disputed the claims.
De La Cruz-Hernandez launched her comeback bid early — in February — and has since been able to keep the primary field clear of serious competitors. She has racked up a slate of early endorsements from some of the state's most visible Republicans, like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Houston, as well as state and national groups including the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life and VIEW PAC, which supports female GOP candidates across the country.
De La Cruz-Hernandez has also put together a more nationally experienced consulting team and stepped up her fundraising, nearly surpassing the amount she raised for the entire 2020 cycle during the first two quarters of this year.
Still, Gonzalez easily outraised her during the latest three-month period, bringing in $426,000 to her $279,000 during the second quarter. He also had a large cash-on-hand advantage, $1.5 million to her $227,000.
De La Cruz-Hernandez will show her biggest quarter yet when third-quarter reports are due to the Federal Election Commission after September, according to her campaign.
Democrats are confident that Gonzalez's race next year will be much different from the one he had in 2020. They note that he will not share the ballot again with former President Donald Trump, who some local Democrats have said had a unique pull with South Texas voters. They also note Democrats will not be abandoning in-person campaigning like they did in the final months before the last election due to the coronavirus pandemic.
However, there is little doubt Gonzalez is facing his most competitive general election yet — and under the newly bright spotlight, he has broken from his party on at least a couple of major issues.
Late last year, he spoke out against a push by some Democratic colleagues to get rid of a rule that allows lawmakers to carry guns on U.S. Capitol grounds. As the situation at the Mexican border has deteriorated, he has expressed concerns about the White House response, asking for meetings with President Joe Biden and other top administration officials. And most recently, he joined eight other moderate Democrats — including two other South Texas lawmakers — in demanding the House consider the Senate's $1 billion bipartisan infrastructure package before a more ambitious $3.5 trillion budget resolution.
Earlier this month, he offered a blunt assessment as Afghanistan quickly fell to the Taliban in the biggest setback of Biden's presidency yet.
"There’s no way to hide it," Gonzalez tweeted. "The situation in Afghanistan is another shame on this admin."
National Republicans have still found plenty to attack Gonzalez over. There was the reporting that for three years he maintained a six-figure bank account with the state-owned Bank of China, which his office said was "American based" and he closed last year. More recently, the NRCC has included him in ad rounds that pressure vulnerable House Democrats over rising inflation under Biden.
NRCC spokesperson Torunn Sinclair said in a statement for this story that Gonzales' "support for socialist policies" has led to the latest problems at the border and with inflation, declaring Texans "will fire him in 2022."
"From putting shots in arms to checks in people’s pockets and bringing our troops and Afghan allies to safety, Gonzalez continues to deliver for working families, farmers and small business owners across South Texas," Isaac Baker, a senior adviser to Gonzalez's campaign, said in a statement for this story. "He is working nonstop to help people weather the pandemic and invest in their futures and he’s the right person for the job."
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Correction, Sept. 1, 2021: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misstated the titles of U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, Colin Allred and Lizzie Panill Fletcher. They are members of the U.S. House, not the state House.