The most interesting political race after the July 31 runoffs in Texas was one of sharp images: a holy card Jesus; two young men kissing; a tiny eyeless spider. But above all, a dollar sign.
National political organizations have spent nearly $6 million on mostly negative advertising for incumbent U.S. Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco and his challenger, state Rep. Pete Gallego for the politically reconfigured, 48,000-square-mile District 23.
Canseco’s campaign has raised $2.5 million and spent $1.9 million of it through the middle of October, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings. Gallego’s campaign has spent nearly all of the $1.5 million it raised.
All of this money has produced for prospective voters broad and sometimes garish portraits of a rigidly conservative Republican Canseco and a wildly liberal Democrat Gallego, images the two candidates have sometimes angrily attempted to refute.
But what it also fostered was a true swing district race none of the experts is confident to call, pitting two Hispanic candidates in a Hispanic majority district almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats clustered in San Antonio and strung out to El Paso in all or parts of 29 counties.
Canseco got here by beating incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez by five percentage points in 2010. He was unopposed in the May 2012 Republican primary.
Gallego lost to Rodriguez in the May primary, but forced a runoff he won in July by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin.
During the primary Gallego’s staff presented their candidate, the first Hispanic to represent his District 74 when he was first elected in 1990, as a conciliator whose reputation in the House has been built on working with Republican majorities.
Gallego was, however, the choice of state Democratic party leadership to run in the newly created District 23 in spite of Ciro Rodriguez’ announced intention. There has been no mistaking, in his speeches and his ads, Gallego’s partisanship.
Gallego has repeatedly told voters Canseco’s political extremism is driving him to undo the entitlement system that protects the country’s most vulnerable people.
The Sierra Club sponsored radio advertising in Spanish charging that Canseco is in the pocket of major oil and gas companies, who have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Canseco’s campaign.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the League of Conservation Voters and the Democratic House Majority PAC are among the major donors who have given millions, mostly for television, print and radio ads.
On Oct. 25 former President Bill Clinton stumped for Gallego in San Antonio, crystallizing his attack on Canseco. "If you look at the campaign that's being run against Pete Gallego, it's your basic, standard tea party deal: 'The government would mess up a two-car parade, and God is on my side,'” Associated Press reported Clinton telling a crowd. "I don't want to get into a religious dispute. But the Bible that I read said the only time Jesus got really angry is when he had to run the money changers out of the temple."
Clinton’s reference to Jesus was a gossamer-veiled reference to a mailer sent to homes by the Canseco campaign in early October. At the top was the Jesus image with a caption that Gallego’s Democratic party had three times chosen not to include the word God in its party platform.
Below Jesus was a baby’s face, alleging that Gallego supported abortion for underage girls. And at the bottom next to the kissing men was a piece of a quote, “I really don’t have an issue,” meant to suggest Gallego’s support for gay marriage.
While Gallego has voted in favor of laws giving allowing minors to have abortions with the consent of their parents, he is opposed to same-sex marriage.
Canseco has repeatedly hammered on what he told reporters was Gallego’s intention to foist “European-style socialism” on the U.S.
Canseco, too, has gotten millions from outside sources, like $1 million from the Congressional Leadership Fund, almost all of it for media.
In a last pitch for Canseco, A Better America Now, a conservative non-profit based in Florida underwrote a mailer circulating in the district insinuating Gallego is a job killer. The star of the ad is Cicurina Venii, sometimes known as the Braken Bat Cave meshweaver.
The discovery of this tiny, pellucid and very rare spider by an environmental consultant for the Texas Department of Transportation in early September has put a stop to a $15.1 million highway underpass project in northwest San Antonio.
The mailer made clear the problem. “Left-wing extremists think spiders are more important than jobs,” and “Left-wing extremists support Gallego.”
In the 2008 presidential election Barack Obama beat John McCain in what is now this district by .61 percentage points. It remains to be seen whether a District 23 that has changed little politically since then will find spiders, or Jesus, or Bill Clinton, or babies more important on Tuesday.
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.
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Photo of Braken Bat Cave meshweaver spider via UMass Lowell website.