The race to be the next representative for Texas’ 15th Congressional District drew a handful of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, six individuals who ranged from moderate to progressive.
When none of the candidates received more than 50% of the vote during the March 1 Democratic Primary, the number of candidates fell down to two with Ruben Ramirez on the moderate end of that spectrum and Michelle Vallejo on the progressive.
As the candidates prepare for the runoff on May 24, their success in engaging voters will determine not only what kind of Democrat will be on the ballot in November but also whether Democrats can retain power in the district.
After qualifying for the runoff by earning just 302 votes more than the third-place candidate, John Villarreal Rigney, Vallejo says her campaign is moving at a much faster pace, amping up their efforts toward fundraising, outreach and building out their field team throughout the district.
Over the last several weeks, Vallejo was endorsed by several local elected officials such as Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez and state Reps. Terry Canales and Armando “Mando” Martinez.
Eliza Alvarado, a former candidate in the race, also backed Vallejo.
She was also endorsed by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Reps. Sylvia R. Garcia and Veronica Escobar, and former state Sen. Wendy Davis.
She is also backed by LUPE Votes, a 501(c)4 nonprofit group which is the political arm of La Union Del Pueblo Entero.
Earlier this week, EMILY’s List, a political action committee that backs female candidates who support abortion access, also announced they were backing Vallejo.
“Vallejo has campaigned on the idea that no one should have to leave home to get quality and affordable medical care, and at EMILY’s List, we could not agree more,” the organization wrote. “The people of Texas deserve to (be) represented by someone who will fight for abortion to be accessible for everyone — not just those who can afford to travel to another state.”
Ramirez has also had his fair share of support, earning the endorsement of the current congressman for District 15, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez.
“I’m proud to support Ruben Ramirez for Congress because he is a fighter who understands the challenges South Texas families face,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “I need Ruben in Congress working with me to lower the cost of healthcare, create great jobs, and invest in education.”
He was also also endorsed by the Blue Dog PAC, a coalition of moderate Democrats in Congress that include Gonzalez and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, and the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, a group that helps to elect Democrats that support pro-Israel policies.
He was also endorsed by the Democrats Serve PAC, which backs Democrats with backgrounds in public service, and by New Politics, a nonprofit group that helps elect veterans to office.
Ramirez — an Army veteran, attorney and former teacher — says his campaign strategy has remained the same since the March primary — speaking to voters and communicating his platform.
“We’re still out there, we’re knocking on doors, we’re going where the voters are, we’re listening to their concerns and we’re telling them about our platform,” Ramirez said. “We’re going out and earning the votes and making sure that we communicate our message and communicate my strong qualifications.”
Ramirez is drawing a strong distinction between himself and Vallejo with voters, pointing to his service in the army and criticizing Vallejo’s lack foreign policy experience.
“This national security and border security are really important to people so we’re talking about that and talking about how we want to make sure we secure the border but do it in a humane way that is consistent with our American values and our Democratic values,” Ramirez said. “Also, the economy. We’re talking about how we want to see our economy improve and how I plan to address the rising prices and the struggle that every day South Texans in this district are facing.”
He emphasized that he knew the struggles of trying to afford necessities, noting that he, at one point, had to live out of his car and, growing up, his family counted pennies to pay the bills.
Vallejo, co-owner of Pulga Los Portales in Alton which her parents opened about 23 years ago, has said through the community at the flea market, she’s seen firsthand how vendors there struggled to make ends meet.
She supports raising the minimum wage, a federal jobs guarantee program that focuses on green energy jobs, and immigrant justice.
Where they also diverge on the issues is their stance on health care. Vallejo supports Medicare For All while Ramirez does not. He, instead, wants to focus on expanding Medicaid in Texas under the Affordable Care Act.
“I’m all for keeping private health insurance and making sure that we expand the Affordable Care Act here in Texas where we can instantly put a whole bunch of people under Medicaid, but my opponent wants government to be in charge of that,” Ramirez said. “She wants to take away private health insurance and I’m definitely not for that so there’s a big distinction there for that.”
They also differed on their opinion on the recent decision by the Biden administration to rescind Title 42, a public health policy implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic that prevented migrants from seeking asylum at the border.
“I believe that it’s premature,” Ramirez said of the recission. “We have an immigration crisis and we need to be honest with ourselves and call it what it is — it’s a crisis, but it’s a crisis that’s been in the making for decades, at least the last 30 years, and it’s one that’s only going to be solved in a bipartisan way and that’s exactly what I want to do.”
Vallejo said she’s advocated against Title 42 because of the harm it’s caused to migrants and left them vulnerable to abuse.
“(They are) left in the hands of those who are going to take advantage of their desperate situation as much as possible which directly puts our communities on this side of the border in direct harm,” she said.
She added that people who represent border communities, or are aspiring to represent the area, need to seek resources from D.C. that the community needs to adequately address the issues along the border.
“We know that people are going to start getting processed after about two years or so without having a system in place where people are able to ask for asylum and be processed in a timely manner,” she said. “South Texas, and specifically our mayors, our cities who are right on the border, need all of the resources and the help and personnel from Washington to be able to face this challenge and do so in a humane way.”
KEEPING THE DISTRICT BLUE
Whoever voters elect to be the Democratic nominee will have an uphill battle toward the general election in November as Republicans have become increasingly emboldened in their ability to turn District 15 red.
Monica De La Cruz, the Republican nominee in the race, also ran against Gonzalez for the seat in 2020 and came surprisingly close to unseating him with more than 49% of the votes.
After her unexpectedly strong performance, state Republicans made the district even more competitive by redrawing the district borders to include more areas that lean toward Republicans and exclude some that favored Democrats.
Vallejo said she’s connected with Republican voters who’ve expressed their support of her candidacy.
“For that reason, I feel very confidently that I’ll be able to gain support across the aisle or bipartisan support here in the district because of the values that I am able to share with others on the campaign trail,” she said.
Vallejo added, “Working hard, showing up, having conversations, being open-minded, and keeping our ears open to our constituents and those in the district is a priority and as long as we keep practicing what we preach, I’m sure that we’re going to show Republicans as well that I am the representative that South Texas deserves.”
Ramirez, however, promotes himself as the only candidate that can defeat De La Cruz in the general election, adding that he doesn’t buy into the narrative of rising Republican sentiment in the area.
“The reality is I’m a bipartisan kind of guy,” Ramirez said. “When I went and I volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, that patch on my arm had a United States flag. It didn’t say Democrat, it didn’t say Republican.”
“I don’t buy the narrative, I don’t buy into that, the partisan politics,” he continued. “I’m here to represent and bring real solutions for everybody in my district.”
Still, the race for Texas’ 15th Congressional District is one of the top priorities for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, already having organizers on the ground and opening a district headquarters — the earliest they’ve ever done so during a congressional campaign in Texas.
They have two full-time DCCC staff on the ground, with plans to hire more, that will focus on reaching out to Hispanic voters and mobilizing Democrats across the Rio Grande Valley.
Through her campaign, Vallejo said she’s building a volunteer base throughout the entire district to have a visible presence throughout.
“We have been able to earn the support of people in the more northern and central parts of the district and we’re working closely with people on the ground to reach out to folks and bring them to the polls,” she said.
“What has been also something that we’ve noticed is that we have messaging in Spanish and English,” Vallejo added. “It was a priority that things are communicated in a bilingual way and we’ve already seen people in this race voting for the first time, getting registered to vote with the support of LUPE Votes and their offices being open to register voters, that’s where we’re sending people if someone on our team, ourselves, isn’t able to do so.”
Ramirez reiterated that his campaign focused on talking to voters where they are.
“Really it’s just about talking to everybody and anybody so we’re out there, we’re out there at all kinds of events, we’re out there on the streets, we’re out there on the phones,” he said. “We’re just reaching out and going out to where everybody is.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated April 13, 2022, to clarify the timing of endorsements for Ramirez.