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story.lead_photo.caption Republican Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez, running in the next general election for the 15th House congressional district, talks in her office in Alamo, Texas, Thursday, July 8, 2021. In Republicans' bid to retake control of Congress, this traditionally Democratic stretch of south Texas has quietly become a top battleground. After making unexpected gains last November, the GOP is zeroing in on a trio of House seats in the region as key targets heading into next year's midterm elections. They include the 15th congressional district, which hasn't sent a Republican to Washington since its creation in 1903, but where the GOP newcomer came within three points of winning in 2020. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — In Republicans’ bid to retake control of Congress, this traditionally Democratic stretch of South Texas has quietly become a top battleground.

After making unexpected gains last November, the GOP is zeroing in on a trio of House seats in the region as key targets heading into next year’s midterm elections. They include the 15th Congressional District, which hasn’t sent a Republican to Washington since its creation in 1903, but where a GOP newcomer came within three points of winning in 2020.

Republican leaders believe the party is on the precipice of a political realignment among Hispanic voters in communities along the U.S.-Mexico border like McAllen. Inroads among Latinos could potentially offset the party’s growing vulnerabilities among voters, particularly in the suburbs. The elections next year will determine whether these shifts are enduring or a more limited response to the turbulent politics of the Trump era, as Democrats hope.

But with Congress having just a six-seat majority in the House, Democrats in Texas say the party has to take the threat seriously.

“I don’t think there’s any question that we need to be concerned about it and we need to put more resources into it,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chair of the Texas Democratic Party.

Republicans’ top target in the area is the 15th District. It currently stretches from the border’s Hidalgo County, which is more than 90percent Hispanic, to the eastern suburbs of San Antonio. Voters here have never sent a Republican to Washington, which is why national party leaders were so stunned when Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez, a small business owner, came within 10,000 votes of beating Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a two-term Democrat.

Sitting behind her office desk in Alamo earlier this month wearing cowboy boots and a campaign T-shirt, De La Cruz-Hernandez, who is running again, credited her performance to former President Donald Trump. She said his “colorful personality” had sparked new interest in national politics that changed many Texans’ minds about politics.

“When they paid attention to what was happening on the national stage, I think that the lights started to turn on for people where they saw, you know what? My conservative values no longer align with the Democrat Party,” she said. “The bottom line is that the Hispanic values are pro-God, pro-life and pro-country. And we are conservatives down here.”

Border security, she said, is “number one issue from the north side of the district to the south side of the district,” as border crossings have soared. And Republicans in the state have been laser-focused on the issue, with Trump staging a post-presidential visit to the border last month that drew hundreds of supporters.

Democratic state lawmakers have been focused on blocking a sweeping election overhaul bill and have been camped out in Washington — though some Democrats representing the Rio Grande Valley did not join them.

Nationally, the Pew Research Center estimates that about 38 percent of Hispanic voters supported Trump in 2020, compared with 28 percent in 2016. While Trump lost Hidalgo Country by 17 percentage points in 2020, he more than doubled his support from 2016, when he lost by a whopping 40 points, earning just 28 percent of the vote. And he flipped a handful of other nearby districts, including Zapata County, which Democrat Hillary Clinton had won 66 percent-33 percent, and Kenedy, which Clinton carried 53 percent-45 percent.

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