Monica De La Cruz is the first Republican to represent Texas’ 15th Congressional District. What will she do with it?

Republican Monica De La Cruz at a news conference at a GOP event in McAllen on Nov. 6. On Election Day, she was elected to represent Texas 15th Congressional District. (Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune)

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McALLEN — Monica De La Cruz will be the first-ever Republican to represent Texas’ 15th Congressional District and the first South Texas Republican to serve a full term in Congress. Now, the single mother of two kids and small business owner who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley will shape what it means to be a Republican in a region that has long been synonymous with Democrats.

That’s a big responsibility for someone who has never held elected office before. When De La Cruz first ran in 2020, few even in her own party had much faith in her ardent conservative platform swaying the historically blue district. She was equipped with a scrappy staff of only a small handful of people, which included a staffer who used to work for her at her State Farm insurance office and eventually became her campaign manager. They were up against the handsomely financed, seasoned campaign operation of then-two-time incumbent Vicente Gonzalez.

While she ended up losing that year, her eyebrow-raising 3-point margin in that race caught the attention of national Republicans, who poured money into three South Texas races this year, and solidified her position as a party trailblazer. She landed endorsements from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is likely to become the next House Speaker, and former President Donald Trump. With the district lines changed to make the terrain more favorable to Republicans and a controversial decision by national Democrats to hold back investments in the race, De La Cruz comfortably found her way to Washington.

On Tuesday, De La Cruz defeated progressive Democrat Michelle Vallejo by a margin of 8.5 points. The district stretches from more conservative rural counties east of San Antonio to the Mexican border in Hidalgo County.

Through it all, her fundamental message has been consistent.

“What I represent and stand by are my values of putting God first, putting our families first and putting America first,” De La Cruz said during an August interview.

De La Cruz ran on finishing construction of a border wall and reinstating policies that would require asylum-seekers to wait out their cases in Mexico. She dismisses critical race theory as “anti-American propaganda” that she hopes to ban from schools. And she has a firm anti-abortion stance, which she says is guided by her Christian faith that she centered prominently in the campaign.

Her positions have caught the attention of others in her party hoping to make Texas border Republicans a front-line voice on border security in Congress, particularly as the party makes the issue a top priority going into the next session. Fellow border Republican U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, who is close friends with De La Cruz, currently serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security. Speaking Monday with The Texas Tribune on the sidelines of new member orientation at the U.S. Capitol, De La Cruz said she was keeping her options open in terms of potential committee assignments.

But during an interview in August, she said she had her eye on a few committees that may be particularly relevant to her district, including the House Agriculture, Small Business, Financial Services and Energy and Commerce committees. She has regularly highlighted her experience as a small business owner, in addition to her deep family roots in the Rio Grande Valley, as a connection with her constituents.

She also hasn’t decided what space within the Republican conference or Texas delegation she hopes to occupy, declining to mention any caucuses that would be a good fit for her.

De La Cruz shrugs at some of the outside labels assigned to her, including from Democrats eager to lump her into the same far-right camp as firebrands like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, or Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado. While the far-right House Freedom Caucus had its welcome orientation for new members just after Election Day, De La Cruz opted to stay home. De La Cruz says she plans to host meet and greets around the district in the weeks before her swearing-in to help craft a more thorough policy agenda.

De La Cruz has also shown some willingness to add nuance to her tough-on-border security policy positions, which may resonate with her peers across the aisle. As much as she talks about securing the border, De La Cruz also acknowledges her grandparents immigrated to the United States from Mexico and advocates for more streamlined legal pathways for immigrants. She calls for hiring more immigration judges to address the backlog of asylum cases and wants to secure better access to Social Security benefits and health insurance in her district.

“I want to represent all of South Texas,” De La Cruz said at her election night party in McAllen. “Whether you voted Republican or Democrat, I am your voice in D.C. and I make a commitment to the community here in South Texas that I want to work with both parties for a better way forward for America.”

She said in an emailed statement after the election that she was proud of Vallejo’s campaign and said “whenever Michelle is ready, I hope she considers joining me in bringing our community together.”

As a quirk of running in a redistricting year, De La Cruz will serve in Congress with Gonzalez — the Democrat she ran against in her first bid for office in 2020. That’s because Gonzalez ran in a neighboring congressional district this year.

Relations between the two can be described as frosty at best. But she said Monday she would call Gonzalez in a bid to restore good faith.

“At the end of the day, what the constituents of Texas 15 want to see is bipartisanship,” De La Cruz said. Gonzalez beat Flores in a competitive race in the 34th Congressional District.

But that bipartisan language hasn’t reassured her critics, who are keeping in mind that she has to represent a highly competitive district going forward. Vallejo, a progressive Democrat who faced off with De La Cruz in an uphill battle this year, called her opponent’s run a “campaign fueled by hate and bankrolled by outside interest greed” after conceding the election. When Gonzalez won his competitive reelection race against Flores this year, he called the prospect of serving with De La Cruz “tragic.”

“There’s some flaws that people are going to have to just think about for the next two years,” Gonzalez said of De La Cruz. “I think two years from now, she’s going to be in a very difficult and a very different environment.”

De La Cruz is quick to say the reason she ran for Congress instead of a more local race was because she was “frustrated with what was happening in Washington, D.C.”

“I didn’t feel like my representatives here in D.C. understood what a single mom goes through, or a small business owner goes through,” De La Cruz said.

De La Cruz’s critics were sounding the alarms over her fitness to run throughout the campaign. Democrats blasted her for using federal COVID-19 relief funds for her small business interests, only to later disparage legislation that included expansions for those relief efforts during the pandemic. She said she has always backed small business assistance but thought the bills had too much unrelated spending.

Regardless, De La Cruz’s win set in motion a wave of Republican optimism in South Texas. Flores ran in last summer’s special election for the 34th district after working on De La Cruz’s campaign. And Republican Cassy Garcia challenged U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar in his hawkishly watched reelection campaign this year after being inspired by De La Cruz’s 2020 run. Garcia, a former Sen. Ted Cruz staffer, was one of De La Cruz’s insurance clients for over five years before her run.

The three Republicans — De La Cruz, Garcia and Flores — ran this cycle with unprecedented financial and media support from national party operatives and were often featured together on conservative media and branded as the “Triple Threat” and the “Trio Grande.” Only De La Cruz, who ran in a district drawn to give Republicans a 2.8-point advantage, won in her race. But the margins in Democratic-heavy parts of all three districts still closed, showing considerable Republican progress.

“They just had the best performances ever for Republicans in those congressional races,” De La Cruz said in an email about Garcia and Flores. “I have no doubt they’ll play an important role in bringing more Hispanics into our party.”

Stephen Neukam contributed to this story.

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