Voters in Texas’ 16th Congressional District – which encompasses most of El Paso County – are choosing between two candidates whose stances on hot-button issues reflect the nation’s gaping partisan divide.

Democratic incumbent Veronica Escobar again faces Republican challenger Irene Armendariz-Jackson. The race is one of 435 congressional districts up for election this midterm, with Democrats currently holding a slim majority in the House.

Escobar, who is seeking her third term in Congress, supports abortion rights, gun safety legislation, LGBTQ equality and comprehensive immigration reform. She defeated Armendariz-Jackson with 65% of the vote in 2020, two years after being elected to the seat left open by now gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke.

Armendariz-Jackson – who opposes abortion and assault weapons bans – often uses her social media platforms and media appearances to criticize Escobar and Democrats with language associated with far-right Republicans, including views on immigration issues. She calls herself the “border candidate.”

Both candidates have said the economy is a key issue impacting the nation and drawing voters to the polls this midterm. Escobar notes that inflation is a global challenge largely impacted by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine; Arnendariz-Jackson on social media often appeals to voters tired of rising food and gas prices. 

Escobar has more than three times more in donations in her coffers than her opponent: She’s raised about $1.2 million from January 2021 to mid-October, about $618,600 of that in individual contributions, according to her campaign finance reports. Armendariz-Jackson in the same time period has raised close to $350,800 – the vast majority from individual contributions.

The voters

Early voting runs through Friday. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Several voters who cast early ballots said their minds were made up early on.

“I’m primarily Republican but I vote for the best person, the best candidate,” said Ray, a 67-year-old retiree, after voting at the Marty Robbins Recreation Center on the Eastside Wednesday.

Saying he preferred not to provide his full name, Ray cited the economy and rising food and gas prices and concerns over crime as key issues driving his vote this midterm. He said he didn’t vote for either Bush for president but would have voted for John F. Kennedy.

“But this year, I’m definitely looking for (Armendariz-Jackson) and the Republicans to get us a better quality of life,” he said. “I’m interested to see what she will do differently.”

Voters exit the Marty Robbins Recreation Center early voting site after casting their ballots on Oct. 26. (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

The economy is also a concern for accountant Mirna Naylor, 65. But what most impacted her vote is the Supreme Court’s decision in June that overturned Roe v. Wade, which had recognized a constitutional right to abortion since 1973.

“I’m very concerned about our rights as women and what’s next,” said Naylor, a Democrat who voted for Escobar. “It’s very worrisome, especially in Texas where you just don’t know where this will end. That’s the primary reason for my vote.”

The issues

Calling the abortion ban “Republicans’ war on women” following the Supreme Court decision, Escobar said the ruling stripped women of their reproductive rights and the right to make decisions about their “own bodies, lives and futures.”

“It is a dark day in America when a Supreme Court ruling ensures the generations that follow ours will have fewer rights than we have today,” said Escobar, 53, a former university English teacher who served as an El Paso County commissioner and as county judge before being elected to Congress.

In a text, Armendariz-Jackson told El Paso Matters she was ill and would return calls requesting an interview at a later time. She didn’t respond to El Paso Matters’ request to submit questionnaire responses for its voter guide.

But on her campaign website, Armendariz-Jackson, 52, describes herself as pro-life, saying abortion should be abolished and that the abortion industry must end. She had harsher words following the ruling on abortion, posting on Twitter on July 24: “Let’s make sure that life is always protected and this genocide never happens again.”

The former real estate agent left her job to run for office in 2018, her campaign site states. The site also lists health care, law enforcement and the America First agenda as issues that matter, though it doesn’t specify how she’d address those issues.

Economy at top of concerns

Numerous polls point to the economy as the No. 1 priority among voters this midterm – a hot topic both candidates are visibly campaigning on.

Speaking Spanish in a video posted to Facebook, Armendariz-Jackson asked Democrats to give her an opportunity to serve the community “if you don’t like what’s happening with food and gas prices.” Her campaign site lists bringing manufacturing jobs back to El Paso as one way to improve the region’s economy.

Armendariz-Jackson on several Twitter posts has claimed the U.S. is in a recession – which many experts argue is not yet the case. “The Recession is already here. Stagflation is next,” she posted on Oct. 17.

For her part, Escobar cites recent policies and legislation she helped pass that aim to help Amerians financially: a record cost-of-living increase to Social Security recipients, allowing Medicaid to negotiate the price of some prescription drugs, capping the price of insulin and the recent passage of student loan relief that Republicans are now contesting.

“I definitely understand the concern around the economy, especially in our community,” Escobar said, adding that what’s often left out of the conversation is the context that inflation is a global challenge. More than supply-chain issues coming out of the pandemic, she said, the economy has also been impacted by the war in Ukraine and the inflationary pressure around fuel.

Immigration the hot topic

Though it might not be the top priority for many voters, immigration is among the most controversial and divisive. That’s become particularly so as border law enforcement agencies saw record numbers of migrant encounters along the Southwest border in the last fiscal year which ended in September.

Escobar has been a proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, including addressing reasons people flee other countries, opening pathways to citizenship and allowing people to apply for asylum in their home countries.

She said she believes immigration is an often misunderstood, complicated global issue which Republicans, especially far-right extremists, create false rhetoric around. She points to Republicans labeling the influx of migrants an invasion.

Escobar cited the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting in El Paso where the alleged gunman referred to the “Hispanic invasion” of Texas in a manifesto as a prime example of the dangers of political rhetoric.

The bigger picture is the ongoing mass migration across the globe and the lack of comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, she said.

“People want a secure border. We all do. We want an orderly process,” she said. “However, what Republicans have done is essentially made it impossible to address immigration in a comprehensive manner. I hope people see what a failure it has been to only address immigration at the border. Only one body can legislate that, and it’s not Joe Biden. It’s Congress.”

A group of migrants approaches the end point of the border wall near the Paso del Norte International Bridge on Saturday, Sept. 10. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In September, Armendariz-Jackson on Twitter claimed the southern border is “fully under siege,” which she’s repeated in recent appearances on a webcast hosted by Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s 2016 chief presidential strategist and campaign manager.

“We jokingly say, ‘We remember when illegals would run away from Border Patrol instead of running to them,’” she said on the webcast of the recent migrant influx that saw thousands of Venezuelans seeking asylum as they crossed the Rio Grande.

“ICE is supposed to be deporting illegals, and they’re working with this administration to welcome illegals. If this is not a slap in the face for Americans, I don’t know what is.”

Migrants released into El Paso and other U.S. border cities have been processed by border enforcement officials and under current law are legally allowed to remain in the country to await their immigration hearings.

But Armendariz-Jackson on the webcast described the migrants released to the streets of Downtown El Paso when the Border Patrol holding facilities and nonprofit shelters were at capacity as “illegals” walking around in “ugly orange Crocs.”

Those shoes are issued to migrants by border agents when they’re taken into their custody for processing.

Armendariz-Jackson vilifying and incendiary language often aligns with that used by former President Trump and far-right Republicans – including Twitter posts where she refers to the 2020 presidential election as having been stolen.

In an Oct. 22 interview with KVIA Channel 7, Armendariz-Jackson deflected a question about whether she believed the 2020 presidential election results were stolen, saying people at this point are focused on the economy.

Asked if she would accept the results of her congressional race on Nov. 8, she said she’d have to “wait and see” but would need to ensure “every legal vote is counted.”

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El Paso native Cindy Ramirez has spent most of her career in journalism, with some stints in public and media relations and military reporting. She's covered everything from education to local government...