When U.S. Congressional District 15 flipped from Democrat to Republican on Tuesday, politicians were quick to credit a “red wave,” but the state lawmakers who crafted the new district last year played a crucial role in ensuring its new fate.
Congresswoman-elect Monica De la Cruz will soon become the first Republican and the first woman to hold that office since 1903, when the district’s first Democratic representative, John Garner, took office. Garner later became Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president from 1933 to 1941.
De la Cruz’s win signals a significant shift in power in what has historically been a blue region.
“Texas Republicans will tell you that picking up TX-15 shows that they’re gaining ground with Hispanics in South Texas. Let me be clear: that’s complete bullshit,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Party chairman, said Tuesday night. “Texas Republicans literally redrew TX-15 to be less Hispanic and more white.”
Republicans who invested time and money in the Valley hailed De la Cruz’s win as a sign of the times.
“We planted our flag in South Texas and we showed America that South Texas is now electing Republicans to office in our great state,” Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday during his opening remarks at Quinta Mazatlán in McAllen, where he watched election night returns and celebrated his third win to the state’s highest office.
SHIFTS IN NUMBERS
Lawmakers, however, took scissors to Texas’ districts after the state gained two seats as a result of the 2020 Census, which found that the state had a significant population growth from 2010 to 2020 — mostly due to Latinos.
Hispanics now account for 40.2% of the state’s population, while whites make up 39.4%.
But despite that, thousands of Latino names were plucked from voter lists across the counties that make up District 15.
Before District 15 was redrawn last year, there were about 808,000 residents living within its boundaries. But in 2021, Texas Republicans reduced it by about 41,000, leaving the district with approximately 767,000 residents.
They mostly took residents from Democratic-leaning counties and shifted them to areas where Republicans have recently seen gains.
More than 90% of the residents they cut out, or nearly 37,000, were non-anglo voters, according to data used by the Texas Legislative Council. Of those 37,000, about 34,000 were Black or Hispanic.
“That small shift is enough to flip a district,” Alvaro Corral, a UTRGV assistant political science professor, explained Friday.
OLD VS. NEW MAP
The new District 15 map shifted in the north, west and south.
Lawmakers made significant cuts to both Guadalupe County, which leans slightly Republican, and Hidalgo County, which is a Democratic stronghold.
State legislators cut more than half of the District 15 residents in Guadalupe County when they redrew the maps, reducing it from 143,000 to 69,000.
Of the 74,000 residents they removed there, about 32,000, or 43%, were Black or Hispanic.
In Hidalgo County, the number of Black and Hispanic residents that state legislators removed from the district was actually greater than the number of residents they drew out of the maps.
In other words, while District 15 lost a total of 36,000 residents in Hidalgo County, a total of 39,000 Black and Hispanic voters were taken out of the maps there.
Other democratic-leaning counties were dropped altogether.
Duval County, which has about 10,000 voters that lean left, and Jim Hogg County, where President Biden won in 2020 with 59% of the votes, were both dropped entirely.
However, red-leaning counties saw big gains.
Jim Wells, a mostly Republican area where Trump took in 55% of votes in 2020, was added to the district, though about 80% of the residents there are Black or Hispanic.
The old map also included about 5,000 voters from Wilson County, but after the last presidential election, when nearly 74% of voters in that county cast a ballot for Trump, 100% of the county’s residents, or nearly 45,000 people, were added to District 15.
Brooks, Karnes and Live Oak counties were all left untouched.
POOR VOTER TURNOUT
While Hidalgo County retains the lion’s share of voters among District 15, voter engagement there is lower than in other counties that now make up the district.
Still, Hidalgo County’s registered voters far outpace growth in the rest of the District 15 counties.
Yet, in last week’s election cycle, all counties in the Rio Grande Valley failed to reach the state’s voter turnout average of 44.9%.
When compared to the state’s list of 254 counties arranged by highest turnout, Starr County placed 193, Hidalgo County came in at 205, Cameron County was at 207 and Willacy County was ranked 221.
Historically, Hidalgo County is not the most engaged in the political process when compared to other counties that encompass District 15.
A map tracking turnout rates among the seven counties from 1988 through 2022 shows Hidalgo County consistently in the lower end.
Coral, the assistant political science professor at UTRGV, said state lawmakers used probing technology that took low voter participation rates into account to draw new lines during the redistricting process.
“These technologies that experts use to engage in the process of redistricting are really sophisticated. They have point-by-point estimates at the street level about the makeup of voters, and that includes their voter turnout tendencies,” Corral said. “Voter turnout tends to fluctuate a little bit from election to election, but you can kind of predict pretty decently a kind of consistent range.”
Republican and Democratic-leaning organizations worked to raise turnout in Hidalgo County, but Corral believes some factors worked against Hispanics.
“I think that there’s a lot of structural issues against this population from unleashing its voting potential,” Corral said.
Despite new laws that restrict forms of voter ID and mail-in ballots, Corral believes there are ways to increase voter participation.
“Principally, I think it’s just the lack of online voter registration. I think so long as online voter registration is not a thing in Texas, it’s gonna be really, really hard for Democrats to win something statewide,” Corral said. “I think that needs to be addressed.”
LOSS FOR DEMOCRATS
De la Cruz’s win is something Democratic-insider Connie Humphrey suspected would come sooner or later.
Humphrey, now a retired attorney, worked with U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa from 2000 through 2015.
She most recently served as chief of staff for Hinojosa, who served as congressman for District 15 until 2017.
As such, Humphrey witnessed the redistricting process multiple times.
“Every single time, Republicans have been trying to cut Hidalgo County up into multiple pieces and then run the districts north to try to catch as many Republican voters as they can,” Humphrey said.
And in order to counteract their advantages, Democrats should make use of their numbers, she suggested. But low voter turnout patterns prove hard to break.
“So even though there should be enough Democrats — even with what they’re doing in Hidalgo County — to counteract some of those northern districts… this year, it didn’t happen,” Humphrey said.
Now a legal consultant, she was critical of the Democratic Party’s lack of pushback during the redistricting process.
“Resources are finite, there’s not money for everything,” Humphrey said. “But they [Democrats] would have solved a lot of their problems if they would have helped us fight some maps, you know, at the redistricting time, rather than trying to then have to deal with the election issue.”
In October 2021, the League of United Latin American Citizens and several other plaintiffs, including nonprofit organizations in the Rio Grande Valley, filed a lawsuit against the state alleging the new maps in Congressional Districts 34 and 15 were being “packed” and “cracked,” meaning voters were being moved from one district to another to favor Republicans.
Although the list of plaintiffs was long, it did not include the state or federal Democratic parties.
Conversely, Republicans had other advantages aside from the new maps.
De la Cruz ran a close campaign in 2020 against the former District 15 incumbent, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez. The newcomer managed to win 47.6% of the votes in her first campaign against a sitting congressman.
Michelle Vallejo, who ran as a Democrat against De la Cruz this year, had more ground to cover, Corral pointed out.
“This was her first time running,” Corral said about Vallejo. “Monica De la Cruz ran in 2020 and came up short, but just knocking on doors one time before, collecting names, getting a donor and voter base going — that can be enough to be decisive.”
For Democrats, the District 15 race will likely lead to some hard-learned lessons and a closer look at state elections, Humphrey said.
“I think that’s another thing that they should be paying more attention to: state legislators. If you control the state legislature, or you can at least keep them from having a veto proof majority, you can stop some of the redistricting stuff, and you can stop some of the voter suppression stuff and some of the other crazy stuff that they tried to do,” Humphrey said. “But in Texas, Democrats are pretty much … shut out of pretty much everything in Austin. It makes it hard to do anything to change anything.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correctly identify former U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa.