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MCALLEN, TEXAS — It’s 5 p.m. and motorists can hear the idle rumble of semi-trucks carrying avocados, tomatoes and other produce inching their way across the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge connecting Mexico and Texas.
Border traffic is a way of life in Hidalgo County, as much as the butterflies that dominate the Rio Grande Valley landscape. In the race for the redrawn 15th Congressional District, Democrat Michelle Vallejo, has seized on the need to expedite and boost commercial traffic between the two countries in a bid to gain traction in her uphill battle against GOP opponent Monica De La Cruz.
“We need to maximize the fact that we are this trade region, this trade zone, right next to Mexico, our largest trade partner,” Vallejo said in an interview in the district. “There are so many people in our community that can benefit.”
Vallejo hopes that message will break through in the final days before the election. The open seat is in once Democratic-dominant South Texas where Republicans have made inroads with Hispanic voters by hammering messages on inflation as well as crime and drugs linked to illegal immigration. By pivoting to economic progress under the Biden administration—including border commerce—Democrats are trying to blunt their anticipated losses in the midterm elections where their House majority is at stake.
Vallejo faces a tougher fight in the 15th District after the Republican-controlled Texas legislature cut out Democratic leaning areas during redistricting. The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate the district as “likely Republican,” and former President Donald Trump would have won the newly drawn district by three percentage points in 2020. The narrow, snakelike district stretches from the border to San Antonio.
The only way Democrats win that seat—and neighboring District 34, which encompasses the southern-most tip of the state—is if a lot of voters come out to vote, said Natasha Altema McNeely, associate politics professor at local University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“Without effective mobilization here in the valley, the turnout rates for Democratic portions of the electorate are going to continue to be low,” she said.
To improve their fortunes, Democrats would be better served by changing the narrative away from making a humanitarian defense of immigration to emphasizing the commercial benefits of a thriving border, James Gerber, emeritus economics professor at San Diego State University, said.
“It’s better to make an economic argument,” he said.
Improving trade relations and infrastructure is a winning narrative, said Gerber, who has spent decades studying and researching border trade economics and and politics.
In McAllen, Texas—the major city in the district—trade, transportation, and utilities account for almost one in five jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Almost 667,000 trucks traveled north through the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge last fiscal year, according to the Texas comptroller.
Republicans blame the administration for lax border policies that led to increased migrant crossings and more and drugs and crime. Last April, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) implemented more thorough inspections at southern ports of entry in an effort to stem the flow of migrants. He later relented after trucking companies complained about delayed inspections that at times forced trucks to wait more than six hours to cross the border. Nevertheless, Republicans continue their attack line that “drugs are pouring” into the US from the southern border.
That strain highlighted the “fragile” balance of inspections and fast processing at the border, Gerber said. Republicans, on the other hand, argue the issue only had a short shelf life and won’t help Vallejo while gas, food, and overall inflation is high.
“The people that were mad were the truckers, the drivers, the companies, the producers more than anybody,” said Brendan Steinhauser, partner of Austin-based GOP political consulting firm Steinhauser Strategies. He said Vallejo still has “some headwinds,” because “people generally feel the pinch,” of high prices.
Vallejo has been endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who campaigned with her Sunday, and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and supports many of their policies such as Medicare-for-all and a $15 federal minimum wage. Her border policy includes a nod to both those on the left and business interests, arguing smoother border operations help asylum seekers and big rigs.
The newcomer to congressional politics also runs a local “pulga,” or flea market, that features small imported art and other goods from Mexico that depend on efficient trade routes.
“Our produce vendors depend on produce that comes from Mexico in a big way,” she said. “When those stops happened for those increased inspections, those families didn’t have anything to sell for a week or two weeks, sometimes even three weeks.”
De La Cruz, who grew up in an adjacent congressional district in Brownsville, says drugs and criminals are crossing the border into the US in uncontrolled numbers. She’s been endorsed by Trump, who made illegal immigration and border control a cornerstone of his political campaigns.
De La Cruz, her campaign staff, and Hidalgo County GOP leaders declined to comment, despite multiple efforts by a reporter to reach them by email, phone and a visit to campaign and party headquarters.
Her main economic message is lowering inflation and ensuring “ranchers and farmers get reimbursed funds for confirmed damages due to illegal immigrant traffic,” according to her website.
De la Cruz raised $4.3 million through Oct. 19 and had nearly $600,000 in cash on hand for the final days of the campaign, according to the most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission. That dwarfs Vallejo’s total of $1.9 million with $160,000 in cash. About $3 million in outside spending in the race also heavily favors De la Cruz, according to FEC filings, led by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super political action committee aligned with House GOP leaders.
National Democratic campaign groups haven’t invested in the Vallejo campaign and instead have directed money to races in neighboring districts where they believe the party is more competitive.
Still, Ivan Duran Puente, a volunteer field organizer for Vallejo, said he isn’t worried about lack of money to pay for ads.
“Ads don’t vote,” he said. “South Texans are at a crossroad about who they want to represent them in Congress.”
Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington also contributed to this story.
To contact the reporter on this story: David Hood in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org