in Houston, Texas

Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes booted by voters in Democratic primary targeted by Houston super PAC

Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 02:43AM CST
By Steve Miller

EL PASO, Texas - U. S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes was ousted from office Tuesday in what by all accounts was one of the hardest fought and acrimonious primaries in recent Texas history. Reyes, an eight-term incumbent Democrat, fell to Beto O’Rourke, a 39-year-old former city council member who benefitted from anti-Reyes ads from the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a conservative Super PAC based in Houston.

O’Rourke ended with 50.47 percent of the vote to Reyes’ 44.35 in the five-candidate race.

“Can you all just confirm for me that this is really happening," O'Rourke said with a wide smile, looking slightly worn from weeks of ceaseless campaigning. He was clearly taken aback by the reality and had little more to offer than the obligatory, "I want to thank all of you for making this possible."

The contest was marked by ad spotlighting by O’Rourke. One Reyes ad exposed O'Rourke's drunk driving arrest in 1998. In another, Reyes claimed O’Rourke favored a bridge between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, that would take the homes of 5,000 families.

O’Rourke portrayed Reyes as an out-of-touch bureaucrat who put family members on his payroll, and in an ad that broke last week, exposed a virtual border fence business that hired Reyes’ children and contributed $17,000 to his campaign after Reyes advocated for the fence in Congress.

The two held their poll watching parties within blocks of each other yet the events were worlds apart. Reyes’ party was held in a ballroom on the 17th floor of the Doubletree El Paso. Starting around 7 p.m., a band played Tejano music, and the crowd drank and ate from a large buffet spread in the middle of the room. Reyes didn't make his first appearance until 10:10 p.m., walking into the ballroom holding hands with his wife, Carolina. He believed at that time that the race would go to a runoff election.

“Tonight has been a wake-up call for us here in this community,” Reyes said. “A wake-up call for us to decide are we going to let people in Houston decide who we are going to send to Congress here?"

But most of his staff and volunteers knew even then that it looked bad for their boss as they watched the results posted on the hour by the El Paso County elections department on their iPads and smartphones.

Beto O'RourkeBeto O'Rourke

O’Rourke’s party was held at a small restaurant and bar on the city’s west side, a once moribund area on the rebound. The average age was a little over 30, with plenty of boisterous drinking and smiles everywhere. Music? Good luck hearing it over the crowd noise.

O’Rourke walked through the crowd, posing for pictures and greeting patrons.

Reyes’ re-election effort was not only hurt by the accusations and exposures of the O’Rourke campaign but by the earnest campaigning of O’Rourke, who could be found everywhere. He stood by the side of the road by early voting sites with a campaign sign. He put up a table outside a music festival downtown on Saturday, handing out buttons with his face on them and black-and-white flyers that asked voters to “Punch #18 for Beto O’Rourke for Congress, May 29, 7 a.m.- 7 p.m.”

On Monday, early voter turnout was determined to be higher than that of 2010, when Reyes easily won the general election with 58 percent of the vote. But his opponent at that time was a Republican, who stood little chance in the ‘D’ dominated 16th congressional district.

In O’Rourke, he faced a youthful favorite son of El Paso. His father, a county judge, was killed when a car hit him while riding his bike. A local trail, the Pat O’Rourke Memorial Trail, is named after him. The elder O’Rourke was 58 when he died.

O’Rourke mounted a feisty social media campaign using Facebook and Twitter to inform followers of his campaigning activities. He said he was inspired by the 2008 Obama campaign’s use of social media.

Like Obama, O’Rourke presented a youthful alternative to business as usual. He supports ending the War on Drugs and easing back on policing of the Mexican border. He told voters that Reyes, 67, a Vietnam vet and former Border Patrol agent, was out of touch with today’s political climate.

Still, O’Rourke supports many of the same measures Reyes supported in Congress, including both the stimulus bill in 2009 and more recently the American Jobs Act, although he qualified the latter, which was turned back by Senate Republicans.

“Some level of stimulus was needed,” O’Rourke said recently. “But at some point you need to start trimming.”

Silvestre ReyesSilvestre Reyes

The district now loses an experienced lawmaker in Reyes, who holds a seniority rank of 132 in a town that defines people by their power. Reyes is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Reyes also brought home the cash in the form of earmarks. He sponsored 76 pieces of legislation that brought in $88 million to his district between 2008 and 2011, records show, in the top 33rd percentile for overall amount.

Reyes repeatedly called O’Rourke a Republican, mostly because he benefitted from ads put out by the conservative PAC in Houston.

In addition to the ads, the Campaign for Primary Accountability launched an anti-Reyes portal, The Reyes Record, April 26. In the closing days of the primary race, the Campaign spent $195,000 on anti-Reyes ads.

Reyes was taking in money to the end, filing a report dated May 27 showing receipt of $7,000 from several PACs.

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or

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Photo of U.S. Capitol by flickr user Glyn Lowe Photoworks, used via a Creative Commons license.

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