in Houston, Texas

The voter’s guide to Congressional primaries in Texas and the lay of the land post-redistricting

Wednesday, May 09, 2012, 08:00PM CST
By Mark Lisheron

Redistricting in a time of political discontent has made for robust democracy in races for U.S. Congress in Texas.

A dozen Republican candidates rushed into newly created District 36 in East Texas; 12 in a Central Texas District 25 redrawn for Republicans; and nine in the coastal District 14 Rep. Ron Paul is leaving.

Eleven Democrats are clawing their way to the May 29 primary in the new Democratic District 33 in the Dallas area. Eight are running in the new District 34 at Texas’ southern tip.

Challengers are testing 16 of the 22 incumbent Republicans and half of the eight sitting Democrats up for re-election in 2012. Longtime and popular Republican Reps. Joe Barton, Ralph Hall and Lamar Smith and Democratic Reps. Lloyd Doggett, Ruben Hinojosa, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Silvestre Reyes have multiple primary opponents.

Please see a list of all the Democratic candidates running for Congress here. You can find the complete list of Republicans here.

But for all of the acrid political turmoil in the creation of four new congressional districts and a protracted fight over boundaries that made its way to the Supreme Court and back, the makeup of the Texas delegation to Congress is not likely to change dramatically, Steve Bickerstaff says.

Bickerstaff is an election and redistricting expert at the University of Texas School of Law. His 2007 book, Lines in the Sand, is a study of congressional redistricting in Texas in 2003.

The interim congressional map, which has yet to get its federal approval, is a compromise product of overreach by a heavily Republican state Legislature legally entitled to draw boundaries as favorably as possible for Republicans, Bickerstaff says.

“All partisanship aside, the congressional map approved by the Legislature was of questionable legality,” Bickerstaff says. “It isn’t up to courts to decide what is fair. It is up to the courts to correct that questionable legality. Within the bounds of the Voting Rights Act, the Republicans did the best they could.”

Sherri GreenbergSherri Greenberg

This give and take is most apparent in the drawing of the four new congressional districts. District 36 has 12 Republican candidates and just one Democrat, including State Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, the only candidate from either party with any government experience above the local level.

District 33, on the other hand, was drawn with its Dallas-area African-American and Hispanic voting majority in mind, Sherri Greenberg, director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, says.

Little surprise, then, that state Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, an African-American, and Hispanic Dallas attorney Domingo Garcia have emerged as favorites from among the 11 Democrats running. The winner will almost certainly beat one of the three Republicans in that primary.

Hispanic voters in District 34 are likely to be represented by one of the eight Democrats in the primary. One of them, Armando Villalobos, the Cameron County district attorney, has pledged to go on with his bid in spite of having been indicted in connection with a series of briberies involving convicted former District Judge Abel Limas.

Less than two weeks before his arrest, Villalobos told the Brownsville Herald that he had experienced a dramatic drop in his campaign fundraising because of the "wackiness" of the primary.

Brownsville attorney Filemon Vela, whose late father was a U.S. district judge and mother the former mayor of Brownsville, is the favorite to represent a district stretching from the southeastern tip of Texas to the southern half of Gonzales County.

District 35 would also seem to favor a Democrat, Lloyd Doggett, of Austin, who is seeking his 10th two-year term in Congress. Doggett has so far vastly outraised and outspent Sylvia Romo, the Bexar County tax assessor.

But the state agreed to a district drawn to give Hispanic voters a 63 percent majority, giving a boost to Romo and Maria Luisa Alvarado, an overlooked political unknown when she ran for lieutenant governor in 2006.

In addition, the Legislature drew Doggett out of his original and neighboring District 25, which has drawn a very conservative slate of 12 Republicans, including former Railroad Commission chairman Michael Williams and former Secretary of State Roger Williams.

The winner is expected to beat unopposed Democratic primary candidate Elaine Henderson in November.

Robert BickerstaffRobert Bickerstaff

“To the mostly white, liberal voters in Travis County what was done to Lloyd Doggett was totally unfair,” Bickerstaff says. “That wasn’t the issue. The Voting Rights Act and what was legal for a district with a predominantly minority makeup was the issue.”

Legislative mapmakers also stretched the Gulf of Mexico District 27 pulling in voters almost to Travis County. The subtle changes were made to help Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, in what remains a swing district.

Farenthold scored one of the significant victories in the 2010 election knocking off Solomon Ortiz, a Democrat who had spent 28 years in Congress, but by just 799 votes. He had been outspent by more than two to one.

Farenthold is now the favorite, facing three Republican challengers with no political experience and relatively little money. (Please see the Federal Election Commission chart for all of the candidates for Congress in Texas by searching here.) Should he win he will face a similarly inexperienced and underfunded Democratic challenger chosen from among four in the primary.

On the other side of the state redistricting produced what is likely to be the most interesting congressional race this year in Texas. Political mavens are salivating over the possibility that recently minted Republican U.S. Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco will have to defend his seat for the 48,000 square mile District 23 from a challenge by longtime state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine.

But first Gallego is going to have to shake free of two Democratic primary challengers, one of them Ciro Rodriguez, who was beaten after serving two terms by Canseco. Gallego had raised nearly $600,000 through the first quarter of 2012 and Rodriguez less than $200,000.

Gallego is a clear favorite to face Canseco, who is unopposed in the Republican primary. After that, Bickerstaff says you can expect a close race in a district that gave Canseco a win in 2010 with less than 50 percent of the vote and which favored Barack Obama for president by 51-48 percent in 2008.

Political cartography has failed to quell bipartisan unrest. Months before redistricting went to court, grassroots Tea Party members promised to shake up a rather deeply entrenched Republican congressional delegation, considered by many outside of the state to be one of the most conservative in the country.

In April, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a Houston political action committee, promised to help fund challengers to four longtime Texas incumbents it says have outworn their welcome. They are Republican Reps. Ralph Hall and Joe Barton and Democrats Eddie Bernice Johnson and Silvestré Reyes.

Of those on the Campaign’s target list, Johnson faces the toughest challenge, maybe the toughest primary challenge in her 10-term career representing the overwhelmingly Democratic 30th District in Dallas County.

Taj Clayton, a Harvard-educated Dallas lawyer who has never run for political office, has raised nearly $400,000, about $60,000 less than Johnson. Johnson’s other Democratic opponent is Barbara Mallory Caraway, who has represented Dallas for three terms in the state House of Representatives.

Reyes, who has served eight terms representing El Paso County’s District 16, is feeling heat from one of those challengers, Beto O’Rourke, a political newcomer who with the Campaign’s help raised nearly $400,000 in the first quarter of the year.

Reyes, having bankrolled more than $900,000, is spending the money on a campaign to warn voters of O’Rourke’s support for another international bridge for the region and the possible displacement of thousands of families if it is built.

O’Rourke has derided Reyes’ ads as uninformed scare tactics.

Rep. Joe Barton, who is seeking his 14th term serving District 6 south of Dallas, has drawn three opponents, and two of them, Joe Chow, the former mayor of Addison, and Itamar Gelbman, a former member of the Israeli Army, have raised more than $150,000 each.

Barton has over the past several months come under fire by the Washington Post and the left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington for his proficiency in winning federal funding for projects that benefit his relatives.

Rep. Lamar Smith joined Barton on both of those lists, but it is unlikely he will be damaged by it. Smith, seeking an eighth term to represent a Central Texas district north of San Antonio, had more than $1.3 million in cash while neither of his two Republican primary challengers had raised more than $25,000.

Democratic Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, on both of those lists as well, is probably as safe as Smith in spite of drawing four challengers in the Democratic primary and four in the Republican primary.

Hinojosa has served seven terms in the largely rural, Democratic 15th District adjacent to District 34 on the state’s southern tip.

And while it isn’t likely to shift the balance of power in the Texas congressional delegation, the addition of Jefferson County to a redrawn District 14 and the withdrawal of Rep. Paul has attracted nine Republicans and two Democrats to the primary.

Randy Weber, of Pearland, completing his second term as one of the most conservative members of the Texas House, is the only one of the nine Republican primary candidates with legislative experience.

But in the first quarter of this year Jay Old, a Beaumont attorney with deep family roots in Jefferson County, raised nearly $200,000 more than Weber and another Beaumont attorney, Michael Truncale, a Tea Party favorite and member of the executive committee of the state Republican Party.

Felicia Harris, a member of the Pearland City Council, has raised more than $200,000.

Each has spent his way to viability.

The wild card in November is Nick Lampson, who is expected to handle political unknown Linda Dailey in the Democratic primary.

Lampson served in the state’s old 9th District for four terms but lost his seat after the Legislature’s 2003 redistricting. He came back to win in a Republican 22nd District, but was beaten in 2008 after a single term.  

The question is how much the addition of Democrats from Beaumont might help a Democrat like Lampson in a still heavily Republican district.

Greenberg figures Republicans will probably end up with 26 of the 36 congressional seats in November, with the assumption that three of the four new districts go to Republicans.

Bickerstaff says the keys will be swing Districts 23 and 27. If both of those districts go to Democrats in November, Bickerstaff says that it is possible that after all of the political and legal effort that went into redistricting by the Republicans in the Legislature on the Republicans in Congress Republicans would gain exactly one seat.

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of Capitol via the Architect of the Capitol website.

Creative Commons License
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Big mistake
Thursday, 05/10/2012 - 02:55PM

"District 36 has 12 Republican candidates and just one Democrat, including State Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, the only candidate from either party with any government experience above the local level."

Former Congressman Steve Stockman is running in that race.

Trent Seibert, editor
Thursday, 05/10/2012 - 03:04PM

To Big Mistake,

Thanks for your comment. We'll take a look.


Texas Watchdog editor

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