Villarreal defeated Ruben Cortez by a narrow five points, less than 300 votes.
Cortez is a current State Board of Education (SBOE) member who previously challenged Lucio for his Senate seat in the 2020 Democratic primary.
In the March 1 primary, Cortez led with 41.3 percent of the vote while Villarreal received 38.5 percent.
The runoff campaign between the two grew heated, with Cortez asking, “Is my opponent running in the right primary?”
“I’ve always worked with my Republican friends to get things done for our community, but I’ve never given thousands of dollars to the Republican Party of Texas, which has worked so hard to defund our schools, block Medicaid expansion, and oppress workers and women,” said Cortez.
The SBOE member pointed to 2020 donations from Villarreal to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and the Republican Party of Texas to the tune of $2,800 and $5,000, respectively.
“Regardless,” added Cortez, “I will keep working with my Republican friends, including my opponent, on ways to find common ground.”
Villarreal responded by criticizing Cortez for being “in attack mode.”
“Yes, he found these two ‘AHA!’ documents and maybe thinks it is evidence that I am not liberal enough,” said Villarreal. “He holds them up like meal tickets for another four years of milking the government cow.”
Lucio’s former staffer said “these donations are entirely accurate and true.”
Villarreal exchanged some barbs of his own, claiming Cortez “has spent the last 18 years milking the government’s cow.”
“Taxpayer-paid trips to Las Vegas, exuberant dinners, and influenced career boost to his relatives are just examples of how we think he has benefitted himself from being in office,” said Villarreal. “Yet you and I are stuck with the bill.”
In the end — but by only a narrow margin — Democrats in the district came down on the side of Villarreal.
The nomination sets up a competitive general election race against Janie Lopez, the Republican nominee for the seat who won the GOP primary outright in March.
With massive swings toward Republicans in the most recent election cycles, the party hopes to win new seats in the region.
In the redistricting process last fall, GOP lawmakers specifically targeted HD 37, changing its composition with an amendment to make it one of the most competitive seats in the state.
Based on the Texas Partisan Index, the new district has a rating of D-53%, meaning that Democrats won with an average of 53 percent of the vote against Republicans in 2018 and 2020.
The makeup of the district was specifically targeted in a lawsuit that has made its way to the Texas Supreme Court, in a case that argues the district violates the Texas Constitution’s “county line rule.”
Under the Constitution, state House districts must fall within county lines whenever possible.
Occasionally — such as in El Paso County — lawmakers must break a county line with a district in order to conform with the population requirements for districts.
But in Cameron County, the county line is broken by two districts, not just one: HD 37, which also covers the entirety of Willacy County, and HD 35, which reaches into Hidalgo County.
The current incumbent under the old map, Rep. Alex Dominguez (D-Brownsville), was drawn into a third district, HD 38, that is contained entirely within Cameron County.
Notably, one of the plaintiffs challenging the new boundaries of HD 37 is Cortez.
An attorney for the state told justices they would not dispute that Dominguez would have standing to challenge the legality of the new map if he had sought reelection. But Dominguez decided to run for a Senate seat instead.
Not wanting to sow confusion amid the current election cycle, the state Supreme Court punted on responding to other redistricting lawsuits and is not expected to demand any sudden redistricting changes to HD 37.
But the state has conceded that lawmakers must revisit redistricting in the coming legislative session that begins in January.
Had Cortez been elected to the seat, his opposition to the map and the state’s admission of an incumbent’s standing would have likely played a role in how the seat might be redrawn.
But now the opportunity for that incumbent influence will fall into the hands of Lopez or Villarreal, who did not bring the lawsuit against the new map.
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Daniel Friend is the Marketing and Media Manager for The Texan. After graduating with a double-major in Political Science and Humanities, he wrote for The Texan as a reporter through June 2022. In his spare time, you're likely to find him working on The Testimony of Calvin Lewis, an Abolition of Man-inspired novel and theatrical podcast.