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Mayra Flores’ social media controversy highlights discord among South Texas Republicans

Representative Mayra Flores (R-TX) speaks at Donald Trump's Make America Great Again Rally in Waco in 2023.
Sara Diggins
Representative Mayra Flores (R-TX) speaks at Donald Trump's Make America Great Again Rally in Waco in 2023.

This week, former South Texas Congresswoman and District 34 candidate Mayra Flores posted a photo on her social media accounts, sharing that “ranch life with family is the best.”

A follower commented, “pupusas?”

“Gorditas de masa,” Flores corrected them.

Hours later, Ben Anderson — a Navy and Army veteran with a large following on X, formerly known as Twitter — posted a side-by-side comparison between Flores’ photo and an identical shot published almost a year earlier on a “Visit Guyana” Facebook travel page dedicated to the South American country.

The post immediately went viral, with social media users piling on about the political implications of what some called the faux ranch breakfast photo ‘heard round the world.’

Socila media post showing a republished photo from former Congresswoman Mayra Flores.
Socila media post showing a republished photo from former Congresswoman Mayra Flores.

Stephan Lawson, a spokesman for the Flores campaign responding to a request from TPR for comment on the incident, said, “Certainly it wasn’t Mayra’s intention to mislead anyone — the photo simply reminded her of her upbringing and childhood. She deleted the tweet to clear up any confusion.”

After the Flores campaign made changes to their X account, the publication Current Revolt combed through Flores’ social media posts and found that the practice of publishing photos from third-party accounts had happened numerous times in the past.

Rival candidate Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez referred to Flores as “The George Santos of the RGV” when sharing a story on X about the incident.

Flores plans to challenge Gonzalez for a second time in Texas Congressional District 34, a key seat for national Republicans in 2024.

'Voters are really smart'

Gonzalez won the district back from Flores in 2022, after the former congresswoman held the seat for just five months because of a special election. Newly drawn districts, now more favorable for Democrats, will be a challenge for Flores next year, as well as connecting culturally with voters, according to Dani Marrero Hi.

Marrero Hi is the deputy director of LUPE votes in the Rio Grande Valley and has managed communication work for progressive congressional campaigns in South Texas.

“Voters are really smart, especially around cultural issues,” Marrero Hi explained. “And so if they see pupusas in a photo and you're trying to say they’re gorditas, they're going to know the difference.”

Over the last few election cycles, the Republican national party has upped its effort to gain more Latino voters in traditionally Democratic districts like 34. Marrero Hi said this has led to awkward attempts at authenticity in the Rio Grande Valley.

“The former congresswoman and her team are not as preoccupied about the truth and about talking about the serious issues South Texas voters want to prioritize,” Marrero Hi added. “And they're more interested maybe in these like, performance posts or, doing this little cultural war kind of thing where they're like, ‘Oh, I'm conservative, and I have a Mexican Rancho. And so let's just find whatever photo on the internet about what looks like a Mexican ranch’ to you know, to pose.”

Some of the rebuffs to candidates’ attempts at connecting authentically for votes have been just as awkward at times. In 2022, a local blogger referred to Flores as “Miss Frijoles” in a political attack, accusing her of “playing the race card.”

Jon Taylor, chair of political science at UTSA, said GOP priorities set at the national level are what is transforming political culture locally.

“This is part of a larger effort by Republicans that goes back to 2020 in the aftermath of Trump doing better than expected in the Rio Grande Valley,” he explained. “And, in particular for certain counties, all of a sudden deciding that they need to be focusing more on Latino outreach.”

'A personality-driven party'

Marrero Hi said that many voters in these districts are looking for candidates that represent them culturally, but that isn’t their only consideration.

“We want to make sure that candidates, when they're presenting certain issues or policies, know what they're talking about,” Marrero Hi explained. “That they're in touch with working families. That they're not just doing some kind of performance art about what a South Texas candidate might look like.”

“It merits conversation on these bids for connection,” said Marrero Hi. “It also makes me question how exactly these posts are being made. I can't imagine that, you know, the former congresswoman doesn't have a photo of a barbecue or that lunch that they could have used.”

Republican Mayra Flores, who is running for the vacant 34th congressional district seat, waves to attendees of her watch party in San Benito, Texas, U.S., June 14, 2022. REUTERS/Veronica G. Cardenas
Veronica G. Cardenas
Republican Mayra Flores waves to attendees of her watch party in San Benito in 2022.

But Taylor said the current tension between national and district priorities across the Republican Party has created new problems beyond out-of-region strategies to connect with district voters on ethnicity on a local level.

“Republicans have made efforts at trying to reach out particularly to voters who seem to be a little bit more enamored with Trump,” he added. “He is creating, in essence, a personality-driven party.”

A person close to the Flores campaign said that because of the national party’s focus on placing Flores in the district, Flores wields a strong influence at a local level. The source said that in Cameron County, Flores had “taken over the local party."

“We never had so much chaos until she got a taste of a small victory against [Democrat Dan] Sanchez,” the source told TPR. “Then it all became about how everything needs to revolve around her ambition.”

Challenging Flores

After it was revealed that Flores republished other accounts’ photos, multiple users on X shared that they were being blocked by Flores’ account on the platform. Hours later, the account had been made private before its handle was updated and made public again sometime after that.

“This is how she generally handles things,” said a person close to the Flores campaign. “Pretend it didn’t happen until you can uncomfortably bring it up and then you might, just might, get an answer explaining herself. This time you won’t because there’s no political answer. But It appears to get even worse than this post.”

A person close to the Flores campaign said that at times, Flores has used “statements and talking points identical to an opponents.’ ”

“In the time I’ve watched local politics, I’ve never seen that. Not once,” said the source.

Mauro Garza, along with Laura Cisneros and Gregory Kunkle Jr., are challenging Flores in the upcoming Republican primaries in March for a chance to go up against Gonzalez in November.

“It’s not a rumor. There’s a lot of evidence,” he said. “I’m talking about local people. They do something, they say something, and she takes it. Local people do a video and she removes the bottom part of the credit. At a time when we have a Harvard president having to resign, and now we’re seeing [Flores] plagiarizing what seems to be her life story. I’m really troubled by that.”

Garza said his main focus in challenging Flores has been to run “a truthful campaign.”

A person close to the Flores campaign alleged that employees and volunteers on the campaign were being “coordinated to flood the CBS 4 local news Facebook page comments, ridiculing them for reporting on [the food photos story]” earlier this week.

Defending the Flores post

Flores herself and Alexis Uscanga, who listed 'Campaign Operative' as his job title for the last seven months with 'Mayra Flores for Congress’ on their public LinkedIn profile, were responding on social media to a news story about the recent incident that the local outlet had republished from The Texas Tribune.

The Flores campaign did not respond to TPR's request for comment on the CBS 4 News Facebook post comments.

“Wow! The economy is a wreck,” posted Uscanga in response to the CBS 4 post. “There’s an invasion in the border that our taxpayer money is going to. There’s several fentanyl deaths in Cameron County. Vicente does nothing about it and this is newsworthy how? Must be a really slow news cycle I suppose. Do your job better in reporting real news.”

Jessie Leal, a local community member, shared an observation on the same social media post published by CBS 4 that many Flores supporters have echoed online this week.

“Seriously, nowhere in her post does she mention that it’s her cooking,” Leal said in the public post. “It’s like posting a picture of a beer on the beach and saying ‘beach life is the best’ or ‘goals.’ ”

Flores never explicitly stated that she cooked the food in the social media post criticized this week or the photos collected by Current Revolt for its report.

“As a proud latina who knows how to cook,” wrote Flores in a caption for a photo of eggs and gorditas cooking on a comal later found on another account. “Homemade Mexican food tastes better from a gas stove.”

“For someone who has branded herself as a culturally-relevant conservative Latina, it definitely raises eyebrows to see how many misleading food photos she’s posted,” Marrero Hi said in response to followers claiming that the food’s ultimate cook was only implied.

Risk to local races

When asked if the district could still run a Republican candidate that could connect with voters from both parties, Garza said, “What we need is someone with interpersonal communication skills that can bring people together to solve problems.”

Taylor said that he’s more concerned about rhetoric in the region increasingly reflecting that of Republican narratives nationally.

“She's posted — let's be blunt — less than accurate pictures of migrants that are approaching the border,” he said. “She's posted about unlawful crossings that are not necessarily accurate. This seems to have been a pattern with her.”

Mayra Flores, Kari Lake speak on CPAC panel, "Biden's Border Crisis" including TownHall writer Julio Rosas, Congresswoman Mayra Flores (TX), Former ICE Director Tom Homan and, Republican Nominee for Governor of Arizona Kari Lake on August 5, 2022. (Photo by Zach Roberts/NurPhoto)NO USE FRANCE
Zach Roberts
Mayra Flores and Kari Lake speak on CPAC panel in 2022.

However, Taylor said that tying national rhetoric to more local races may backfire at the ballot box over the next election cycles.

“Some Republicans think the Latino vote is up for grabs. I don't think it is necessarily,” said Taylor. “I think that there's a recognition that Trump's rhetoric, particularly his absolutely atrocious comments that were literally mirroring fascist comments about purity of blood and all that, may finally at least scare certain politicians, particularly Latino Republican politicians, that maybe Trump's not quite the person they’d like to have representing them and supporting them.”

Taylor said Trump has also transformed the way the Republican Party raises funds at every level, “essentially drying up much of the money for anybody else.” He believed that this, coupled with outreach and messaging challenges, will test the party over the long haul.

“In the long term, Trump’s activities are actually going to destroy the Republican outreach efforts,” Taylor added. “They’re going to destroy Republican outreach efforts to recruit candidates, and to actually maintain long term viability.”

Republican voters in District 34 still have to decide between Flores and three other candidates in the March primary to see who will ultimately run against Democrat Vicente Gonzalez in one of the nation's most closely watched congressional races.

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Pablo De La Rosa is a freelance journalist reporting statewide with Texas Public Radio and nationally with NPR from the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, from where he originates. He’s the host of the daily Spanish-language newscast TPR Noticias Al Día.