Democrats Make Last Stand in Texas Runoffs

Posted July 23, 2012 at 3:53pm

Former Representative Is Outspent in 23rd District Race, but That May Not Matter Much

There is no better illustration of former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez’ campaign to return to Congress than his Federal Election Commission report.

The Texas Democrat raised just $81,000 in the first six months of the year, yet he finished his May 29 primary in first place, a few points shy of winning the contest outright against the better-funded, establishment-backed state Rep. Pete Gallego, who raised $551,000 during the same period. Rodriguez has been similarly overmatched in the runoff campaign, but Gallego supporters concede it might not matter.

“We’ve all learned our lesson of discounting the intrinsic appeal of Ciro Rodriguez,” said Democratic consultant Matt Angle, a backer of Gallego.

The situation has put state and national Democrats in a tough spot. In Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., they like Rodriguez personally and appreciate his work ethic. But his inability to build a strong campaign infrastructure and raise money is a point of recurring frustration for Democrats who desperately want to take the 23rd district.

Many believe that Rodriguez could win the July 31 runoff. But these same Democrats fear he would falter in the general election against Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco (R) or force the national party to invest heavily to flip the seat, draining coffers that could be spent elsewhere.

Gallego also has faced criticism about his campaign’s execution.

On the surface, he was the Democratic candidate with the polished, professional campaign, strong fundraising and high-profile consultants. That’s why his primary loss was initially something of a head scratcher to those who followed the race.

But in recent weeks, Democrats have begun to criticize how his campaign is being run.

“There hasn’t been much of one,” said Colin Strother, an unaffiliated Texas-based consultant. “There’s been a lot of flash but not a lot of substance.”

Other Democrats have echoed Strother’s comments privately.

Structurally, one of Gallego’s biggest problems is that his pollster was Alan Secrest. Just a few weeks after the May 29 primary, Secrest announced that he was going out of business.

Strategically, Gallego’s problems could stem from the fact that he hails from one of the most remote parts of the 23rd district, an enormous sprawl of a seat that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso. In the primary, Gallego lost to Rodriguez in the San Antonio portion of the district, which is the seat’s population center.

Some Democrats are hopeful that Gallego has put his campaign on track, although others are skeptical. He recently picked up the endorsement of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, and that could be an asset when voters decide the runoff one week from today.

But Democrats are of mixed opinion on whether Castro’s popularity will translate to Gallego.

Democrats insist that Gallego will be a serious threat to Canseco if he can win the runoff. But if not, party officials say they will help Rodriguez in his bid to return to Congress for a third time.

“The [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] can’t think of it so much as working in partnership with the campaign,” Angle said. “They’ll have to put Ciro on their shoulders and carry him. And with Pete, it will be more of a symbiotic relationship.”

In a state where Democratic heartbreak has become a way of life, the 23rd means more than a single House pickup. It is one of the few bright spots for Texas Democrats, period.

Much rides on this runoff and how the party adjusts to whoever is the nominee.

“We need that seat,” Strother said. “It’s going to take everybody rowing their boat in the same direction.”

In New 33rd District, Runoff Could Be as Much About Dallas-Fort Worth Rivalry as Candidates

The motto at a barbecue restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, is: “Life’s Too Short To Live in Dallas.”

That sentiment sums up the tension in the Democratic primary runoff for the new, open 33rd district, which contains and pits against each other Hispanic parts of Dallas’ Dallas County and African-American precincts of Fort Worth’s Tarrant County.

For generations, Dallas and Fort Worth have engaged in economic and tribal rivalries. In recent years, though, local leaders from both cities have made an effort put their differences aside and work together on economic issues.

But much of that goodwill has been undone in the past six months by the competitive Democratic primary in the 33rd district, which will come to a head in next Tuesday’s runoff, when voters choose between former state Rep. Domingo Garcia and state Rep. Marc Veasey.

“There’s obviously a desire in Tarrant County for this to be held by a Tarrant County person, and likewise the same thing in Dallas,” former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr said.

A prominent advocate for cooperation between Dallas and Fort Worth, Barr is backing Veasey.

This new district, a product of Texas’ gain in House seats because of population growth as determined by the 2010 census, was drawn specifically to be a majority  minority seat. The two Democratic runoff candidates reflect their local interests.

Garcia has spent the past 20 years at the center of Dallas politics, and as a result he has been a regular presence on the local news in a media market that includes Fort Worth.

Veasey, an African-American Fort Worth native, came up professionally in city politics. He is a former aide to ex-Rep. Martin Frost (D) and has the backing of much of the Fort Worth business and political establishment. Veasey beat Garcia by about 12 points in the primary, but it was nowhere near enough to avoid a runoff.

A glance at Federal Election Commission reports from the second quarter shows donations based on regional favoritism.

Garcia, a successful and prominent personal injury attorney, has largely self-funded his campaign with $1.28 million in personal loans, but many of the names on his report have Dallas addresses. Prominent residents of Fort Worth, a wealthy city with an economy based in oil and natural gas, have banded behind Veasey.

Even reliable Republican billionaire donor Ed Bass, who is based in Fort Worth, has donated to Veasey.

“This is a sad [race], because whoever wins or loses this race, the rift is going to be there for 10 or 20 years,” an unaligned Texas political operative said.

The candidates have shown some crossover appeal, with Dallas-based Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) endorsing Veasey and Fort Worth City Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks, who finished third in the primary, backing Garcia. But the geography of the district inherently pits the two cities against each other.

The rivalry was further exacerbated when Garcia called areas of Fort Worth “ghettos” and did not express support for Fort Worth’s economic lifelines, such as Lockheed Martin.  

“Domingo Garcia … played right into the hands of the Dallas-Fort Worth rivalry,” said Frost, who is backing Veasey.

Fort Worth political players take umbrage at the comments and conversations about Garcia, which nearly always include one word: “divisive.”

“Well, I guess divisiveness is in the eye of the beholder,” Garcia general consultant Colin Strother said. He noted that context of the “ghetto” comments was lost, and he stressed Garcia’s track record of breaking through racial glass ceilings.

“In some instances, in some people’s minds, yes. It makes him ‘divisive,’” Strother said. “[But] for those he’s advocating for, they don’t see him as divisive. They see him as an advocate.”