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Cuellar Drawing Two Primary Foes

Just two months after being sworn in as the Congressman from Texas’ 28th district, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) is already bracing for a serious primary challenge in his South Texas seat. Former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D), who lost a primary to Cuellar last cycle, has already announced his plans to run again and will likely be joined in the race by state Rep. Richard Raymond (D) of Laredo.

“A lot of folks have approached me about this race for months now,” Raymond said in an interview Monday. “I am seriously considering it but will not make any kind of formal decision on this until we finish our legislative session.”

The session is expected to close by the end of May.

The presence of two formidable primary challengers is simply the latest hurdle for Cuellar, who came to Congress this year amid considerable controversy.

“Henry is ready for a robust challenge,” said Bob Doyle, a Cuellar consultant. “There is a lot of time between now and when folks will actually look to pull the trigger.”

Filing for the race begins in December with the primary set for March 2006 and a runoff in April. A runoff is triggered if none of the candidates receives 50 percent on the first ballot.

After nearly ousting Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) in the 23rd district in 2002, Cuellar decided to challenge Rodriguez in the 28th district after a 2003 Republican-led redistricting moved much of his Laredo base into the Democratic incumbent’s seat.

That move led to a nasty and personal race that saw Rodriguez apparently win by 145 votes on primary night.

A subsequent recount found hundreds of untabulated ballots in the Laredo area (Webb County) that gave Cuellar a 203-vote lead. Subsequent court challenges by Rodriguez trimmed Cuellar’s ultimate margin to 58 votes.

Rodriguez immediately announced he would run again for the seat in 2006, a pledge he affirmed Monday.

“I am still running and we are still touching base with some of the constituencies,” he said. Asked what he would do differently in this race, Rodriguez asserted: “I won the first time.”

Cuellar also encountered some animosity from members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus upon his arrival on Capitol Hill.

The current CHC chairwoman, Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), told Roll Call last year that she had “a question in my mind on whether I can trust him.”

A spokeswoman for Napolitano said that the CHC doesn’t make “political endorsements” in general and will not endorse Cuellar or either of his two potential primary opponents.

Some Democrats remain leery of Cuellar because he openly touts his friendship with President Bush and served as the appointed secretary of state in Texas under Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Regardless of the result of the primary and likely runoff, the eventual winner will have no trouble holding the seat, which was drawn to elect a Hispanic Democrat.

Much of the race — assuming Cuellar, Rodriguez and Raymond all run — will revolve around the geography of the district, which snakes between San Antonio in the north and Laredo in the south.

Cuellar and Raymond share a base in Webb County, while Rodriguez’s political strength lies in Bexar County, home to San Antonio.

In the 2004 primary between Cuellar and Rodriguez, 15,325 votes came from Webb, 13,561 from Bexar and 20,213 from the nine rural counties included in the 28th, according to calculations provided by Raymond.

Under Raymond’s win scenario, he cuts into Cuellar’s base in Webb while running up his totals in the rural counties, many of which he represented as a state Representative from 1992 to 1998 — the sum of which gives him enough votes to advance to a runoff.

Raymond argues that his strength in the rural areas makes him the stronger choice to upend Cuellar, a point he made to Rodriguez in a face-to-face meeting last week.

“We are old friends and I respect him but I don’t believe he can win the seat,” Raymond said about the former Member.

Rodriguez vehemently disagreed with Raymond’s winning formula, insisting that turnout in Bexar in last year’s primary was less than 10 percent of eligible voters, which cost him the election.

“My goal and what I need to do is turn out my vote,” Rodriguez said. He added that if turnout in Bexar reaches 20 percent he will win by 10,000 or 12,000 votes.

On the most basic political level, however, Cuellar seems most likely to benefit from a crowded field as the anti-Cuellar vote would likely split between Rodriguez and Raymond.

Another seeming advantage for Cuellar is his fundraising capacity as an incumbent.

The pressing question for Rodriguez and Raymond is, “Can they fund themselves?” Doyle said.

“How much are the D.C. groups going to be willing to invest in a seat like this when we have top targets [around the country] that are going to be good pickup opportunities for us,” Doyle said.

Cuellar ended 2004 with $37,000 in the bank after spending $1.4 million last cycle. He also carried $252,000 in debt.

Rodriguez has kept his campaign account open though he raised no money for it from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31. At the end of last year, Rodriguez had $11,000 in the bank though he was also owed $47,000 in debts.

Raymond acknowledged that “if you are an incumbent like Cuellar you should get more PAC money out of D.C.,” but he maintained he will still be competitive.

“If I am in this race it will be because the support is there both in the grass roots and financially,” Raymond said.

During his unsuccessful 1998 statewide race for land commissioner, Raymond raised more than $1 million but was grossly outspent by now-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R), who gave himself more than $7 million.

“Every race I have run I have outraised my opponents in terms of contributions,” said Raymond. “If I am running, this race will be no different.”

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