Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Texas 23:Democratic Strategy is the Only Constant

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX) is as decisive as a kid in a candy store when it comes to his congressional bids. The former congressman bowed out of the race in Texas 23 early last week, citing family reasons and the inability to raise the necessary funds. Then, through a spokesman, Rodriguez reconsidered the race, and promptly jumped back into the race just hours after he got out.

The scramble in south Texas ensued when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the congressional lines in a handful of Texas districts because they violated the Voting Rights Act. A three-judge panel redrew the district at the beginning of August and filing re-opened for the race.

Now, Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-TX) is left to run in a redrawn district that went from a 62% GOP performance in 2004 statewide races, to a more competitive 54% Republican performance. Not all of those races are very competitive, but in the 2002 race for lieutenant governor (widely regarded as a fairer fight), Democrat John Sharp carried the new district with 55%, even though he lost 52%-46% statewide. Overall, Democrats average 50.7% in statewide races, according to the Lone Star Project, a Democratic PAC.

Even though Rodriguez is a former member of Congress, there is no guarantee he would be the strongest Democratic candidate. He has never been known as a strong fundraiser or candidate. He lost renomination 50.2% to 49.8% to Rep. Henry Cuellar in the 28th District in 2004. And he lost a primary rematch with Cuellar earlier this year, 53%-40%.

While Rodriguez was second guessing his decision to run, some local labor groups rallied behind retired San Antonio Fire Department district chief Albert Uresti (D). Uresti's brother Carlos is a state representative, but Albert has never run for office and is expected to run a good, local, and under-funded campaign. Community activist Augie Beltran (D) of San Antonio and truck stop owner Adrian DeLeon (D) of Carrizo Springs are also in the race along with original 23rd District nominee Rick Bolanos of El Paso.

Businessman Lukin Gilliland Jr. of Alamo Heights may be the Democrats' best hope. He put in $500,000 of his own money as he entered the race and his family is well known with Democratic insiders in the state, even though the first time candidate starts with little real name identification. But Gilliland, an attorney and rancher, could help close that I.D. gap with Rodriguez with help from his own wallet.

An August 10-15 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (D) survey showed Bonilla getting 44% in the multi-candidate race with Rodriguez at 24%, state legislator Pete Gallego 11%, Uresti 7%, Richard Perez 3%, and Bolanos 1%. Gallego could not run in the special election, even though multiple Democratic insiders considered him the best candidate. Even though Rodriguez was down by 20 points, Democrats were encouraged by Bonilla falling short of 50 percent.

Because of the court decision, November 7 will actually be an open special election. If no candidate receives 50 percent, then a runoff will be scheduled between the top two vote getters approximately 30 days later. Very simply, Democrats must hold Bonilla below the threshold and push it to a runoff in order to have any chance this year in the district.

In a one-on-one situation with Bonilla, the Lone Star Project laid out the Democratic strategy: 1) get at least 30% in northwest Bexar County (Bonilla's base), 2) get at least 55% in the areas outside of Bexar County (Kerry only got 44% in 2004), and 3) make sure that South San Antonio makes up at least 30% of the total district vote.

It's a winning scenario, but it may not play out until 2008, when Democrats have more time to cultivate a candidate and a campaign. But if Election Night ends with the House deadlocked 217-217 and Bonilla below 50%, both national parties will swoop into the district and South Texas will never be the same again.

This column first appeared on Political Wire on September 7, 2006.