The redistricting-forced race between Reps. Randy Neugebauer (R) and Charlie Stenholm (D) in the West Texas 19th district has quickly grown heated as both candidates are now on television and a new Republican poll has prompted a fierce debate over where the contest currently stands.
To Republicans, the newest Neugebauer poll, which gives him a 47 percent to 39 percent edge over Stenholm, is simply the latest piece of evidence that their candidate is in an extremely solid position to win the GOP-friendly seat.
Democrats counter that Neugebauer’s lead is 3 points smaller than it was in a January Republican survey, adding that nothing has happened to fundamentally alter the race since a Stenholm poll in early April showed him with a 4-point lead.
“Poll numbers rarely if ever change without a shift in dynamics, and there has been nothing [like that] to occur in this campaign,” said a Stenholm campaign source, who asked not to be identified.
In that time, however, both Neugebauer and Stenholm each ran more than a month of television advertising designed to introduce themselves to the new district, which was drawn by Republicans in the state Legislature late last year.
Five Texas Democrats are in serious jeopardy of losing re-election bids thanks to the Republican remapping.
The flight of ads has boosted Neugebauer’s name identification in the Public Opinion Strategies survey, which was in the field June 28-29 with a 4.38 percent margin of error.
In the poll, Neugebauer was known by 79 percent of those tested — up 10 points from a similar survey in January. Stenholm was also known by 79 percent of the sample.
“In just a few months, Randy, a first-term Congressman, has erased the image gap with a 26-year incumbent,” writes Glen Bolger in the polling memo.
Both men were thought of favorably by 51 percent of voters, with just 12 percent thinking of Neugebauer unfavorably and 13 percent feeling negatively about Stenholm.
“Even Neugebauer’s own pollster shows that despite the fact that the vast majority of the district is currently represented by Neugebauer, Stenholm is as well known as Neugebauer and is highly regarded,” Stenholm pollsters Bob Meadow and Mark Mehringer wrote in a response to the Neugebauer survey.
Neugebauer currently represents roughly 60 percent of the new 19th; Stenholm represents 32 percent.
After a five-week television hiatus the campaigns are back up with more positive advertising.
Neugebauer is running two separate ads — one in each of the district’s population centers of Abilene and Lubbock — featuring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) discussing her strong working relationship with the freshman Congressman.
In the Lubbock market, which covers 58 percent of the district, Hutchison touts the $15 million she and Neugebauer secured for Texas Tech University, which is based in the city.
In the Abilene ad, Hutchison discusses the duo’s work to “strengthen” Dyess Air Force.
Stenholm has two of his own commercials that are also bifurcated between the Abilene and Lubbock markets.
The ad in Abilene, the area that constitutes Stenholm’s base in the new district, pictures the Congressman and his wife, Cindy, discussing his “old-fashioned values.” The ad points out that Stenholm sponsored legislation seeking to limit indecency in television programming.
The Lubbock ad details how Stenholm met his wife when they were both undergraduates at Texas Tech.
Both media markets are decidedly inexpensive, likely signaling a prolonged television war.
Neugebauer is expected to show more than $1 million on hand in his July quarterly report; Stenholm ended March with $588,000 in the bank.
While the candidates’ ads remain positive, the behind-the-scenes grappling has already begun in earnest.
Both sides paint the other as misinformed about the status of the race and its likely outcome, a not-unfamiliar disagreement but one rare at this point in a campaign.
“We like very much where we are right now,” said a Neugebauer adviser.
“We are very comfortable about where we are,” echoed a source close to the Stenholm campaign.
At issue is whether Stenholm, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, can overcome the decidedly Republican tilt of the seat, which contains just one-third of the constituents of his old 17th district.
According to Bolger’s memo, “Randy has a tremendous geographic advantage in this new district.”
The pollster notes that President Bush would have received 75 percent under the new 19th’s lines in 2000, “his highest percentage in any of the new districts in Texas.”
Democrats retort that Stenholm regularly won in his old Republican-leaning 17th district while Bush was carrying it easily — in both his gubernatorial and presidential races.
Stenholm allies note that the Congressman is as well-liked as Bush in West Texas and is seen as an independent voice by the region’s voters.