Cassy Garcia, Sandra Whitten face off

The nation is watching South Texas, eager to see whether moderate US Rep. Henry Cuellar will overcome a progressive challenger in a hard-fought campaign in Texas’ 28th Congressional District.

But while the Democrats mix it up ahead of the May 24 runoff election, another contest is playing out quietly in the same district. On the Republican side, Cassy Garcia, a former staffer for the US Sen. Ted Cruz, is facing off against preschool director Sandra Whitten, the 2020 GOP nominee for the seat.

As early voting begins Monday, both candidates are rushing to make their final pitches to voters and hitting all the usual points: the border, inflation, oil and gas. And, more than anything, they’re trying to get people to actually show up to the polls. Just 17 percent of registered voters in District 28 cast ballots in the primary, in line with statewide totals.

“It comes down to the turnout,” said Jon Taylor, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “It comes down to retail politics. It comes down to kissing babies and going to rotary clubs to give speeches – particularly at a time of year when college is winding down, there’s college commencement, there are high school graduations, there are quinceañeras, and Memorial Day is coming. ”

Garcia, with a massive fundraising advantage and support from DC Republicans, finished first in a field of seven candidates during the March primary. She captured 23.5 percent of the vote to Whitten’s 18 percent and is considered the favorite to win the nomination.

A ‘red tsunami’ in South Texas?

Garcia’s and Whitten’s platforms are similar, and both highlighted border security and energy independence as top issues. Both are young women with roots in South Texas, initially jumping into the race with the hopes of unseating Cuellar.

Republicans have been expanding their presence in South Texas over the past two years, energized by GOP gains there during the 2020 presidential election. South Texas has long been considered a Democratic stronghold, but Republicans are hoping to ride the momentum of a midterm election widely expected to lean red.

In 2020, the 28th district elected President Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump by just 7 percent points.

“We’re not in New York,” Garcia said. “I don’t see Texas turning blue anytime soon. If anything, I think we’re gonna see more of a red tsunami, more people turning out. There’s a real opportunity. ”

Garcia, of Edinburg, is a longtime political staffer. She joined Cruz’s office in 2013 as the senator’s South Texas regional director and was promoted four years later to deputy state director. Previously, she served as a regional field representative for the Texas Agriculture Commission.

She decided to run for Congress in November, inspired by the state’s border “crisis.”

When asked how she differentiates her campaign from Whitten’s, Garcia didn’t mention her opponent by name, instead pointing to her own experience as a congressional aide.

“I know the insides of it, how to run an operation, how to work with legislation, how to advance priorities here in Texas,” Garcia said. “The other thing, too, is being able to work with the voters, work with the community, work with everyone. I care so much. ”

Whitten said she will win over voters by talking with them directly, attacking Garcia for welcoming help from DC and living outside the 28th district. Congressional candidates do not have to live in the district they represent, but Garcia lived there until state legislators redrew district boundaries last fall. She now lives just outside the district borders.

“We’ve got to make sure people are actually going through social media and looking at all the different platforms – go to the voter surveys and things along those lines,” Whitten said. “Go to the candidates’ website, look at who has been here for the district. Look at who is fighting the fights for the district, not the person who just has all the Washington, DC backings. ”

The political landscape

Regardless of who wins the GOP nomination, the Republican’s race will depend heavily on the Democratic nominee.

On one side, US Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, is seeking a 10th term. He is among the US House’s most moderate members and does not support abortion rights. Laredo immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros is challenging Cuellar from the left, touting endorsements from the US Sen. Bernie Sanders and US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

It would be easier for either Republican candidate to campaign against Cisneros, GOP strategists and political experts say. Cisneros’ platform contrasts most sharply with Republican priorities, and she does not have the benefit of incumbency and institutional support from US House leadership.

Garcia said her campaign is “ready to go toe toe” with either candidate, but she features Cisneros as an “extreme socialist” whose views do not align with voters in the Rio Grande Valley.

“I even think if it’s Henry Cuellar, we’re going to be fine, too,” Garcia said. “I think we have a real opportunity to get voters. I think they’ll come out and vote Republican, come the general. I think, with all the issues happening right now in the (Biden) administration, it’s easy for us to sell that case right now. ”

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