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After Upset in ‘Fowl Race,’ Texan Prepares for Washington

Less than 24 hours after his opponent’s concession, Blake Farenthold regarded his upset victory in Texas’ 27th district with humility.

“I’m not naive enough to believe that Blake Farenthold won that election,” the Republican said this week. “I think a good chunk of my votes were for anybody but Ortiz.”

Despite his low national profile and limited support from national GOP leaders, Farenthold managed to oust Democratic Rep. Solomon Ortiz from the southeast Texas seat he has held since its creation in 1982.

Before Nov. 2, the lawyer and small-business owner might have been best known outside the district for a photo showing him in duck-print pajamas, a scantily clad woman leaning on his arm. After Nov. 2, however, Farenthold became known as one of the most unlikely Republican victors in a cycle dominated by unlikely Republican victors.

In an interview Tuesday, Farenthold credited his victory with voters’ impatience with Ortiz. He said he believes that voters decided Ortiz had been in office too long and he traveled to places other than his district too often. When unofficial results from Nov. 2 showed the Congressman losing by fewer than 800 votes, Ortiz requested a recount. He conceded to the former radio talk-show host Monday night.

Because Farenthold’s campaign was largely on its own, he had to get creative. “Nobody’d really come close to Ortiz ever, and I certainly didn’t have the funds he had at the interim points,” said Farenthold, who will turn 49 next month. “We ran a real grass-roots campaign. He wouldn’t debate early on, so we got corny and got a guy in a chicken suit and mailed rubber chickens to his office.”

“I kind of call it the fowl race because we did the chicks, and he found the pictures of me at a party in the ducky pajamas,” he said, laughing and explaining the photos were from a charity event. “All we were missing was a goose.”

Farenthold is hoping for more support from Texas Republicans and the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2012. He didn’t fault them for keeping their distance, noting that he didn’t have nearly as much money as Ortiz, the Democrat had been easily winning elections for a long time and polls didn’t indicate the race was close. He said local donors to the NRCC, however, questioned the committee’s absence from a race they believed Farenthold could win.

“I would’ve loved to have had their help earlier,” Farenthold said. “I don’t think it would have been nearly as close if they had jumped in earlier, but I understand that groups like the NRCC have limited resources and need to spend their money where they can win.”

As the national reapportionment of House seats among states approaches in 2012, Texas stands to gain four, meaning there could be big changes in district lines. Texas’ new Congressional map is subject to Justice Department approval to protect the influence of minority groups under the Voting Rights Act, and Farenthold’s Hispanic-majority district will be a primary concern.

The 27th district cuts through six counties and stretches from north of Corpus Christi to Brownsville on the Mexico border, a distance that takes about three hours to travel by car. Farenthold said it would make sense for separate Congressmen to represent the two port cities, with one district containing Corpus Christi, where he lives, and the district containing Harlingen absorbing nearby Brownsville. Such an arrangement would preserve his district’s Hispanic majority, he said.

“I really do think the Valley would be better served with a Brownsville-Harlingen district and a Congressman who’s 100 percent focused on them, rather than a Congressman who’s representing two cities that are basically competing,” he said.

Farenthold said he hopes to prove to fellow Republicans that he can win re-election, even if his district remains Democratic-leaning. “I think the way I’m going to end up having to convince them is showing that I’m an asset both in Washington and for my district and that I can win,” he said.

To that end, Farenthold would like to eventually join the Energy and Commerce Committee, he said. In his first term, he would be happy to take seats on the Armed Services and Transportation and Infrastructure committees, where Ortiz serves now.

More immediately, Farenthold is dealing with the basics of setting up an office. Because he couldn’t take part in the office lottery during freshman orientation last week, he will get Ortiz’s Rayburn suite for one term and then will pick a new office with other sophomores in 2012 if he is re-elected. He still needs to order office furniture and supplies, and he has only begun to make job offers to potential staff.

Members of Texas’ Republican delegation have suggested some experienced staffers, Farenthold said. One who helped with his recount is considering an offer to become his chief of staff. Otherwise, Farenthold is looking for people who understand both the Capitol and south Texas, and he prefers bilingual applicants.

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