Texas Voters Head to Polls in New Districts Today
The redistricting plan crafted by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to realign the Lone Star State’s Congressional delegation will get its first test today as primary voters head to the polls in its 32 districts. The restructuring of the lines already has created a Democratic retirement, a party switch benefiting Republicans, two Member-versus-Member races and three open seats that strongly favor the GOPers.
Three Democratic incumbents also face serious primary challenges in districts with significant minority populations.
The most contentious of the three has been in the Houston-based 9th district, where freshman Rep. Chris Bell (D) is being challenged by former Houston Justice of the Peace Al Green.
Green, who is black, has tried to paint the contest along racial lines, arguing that a district where blacks make up 37 percent of the voting-age population should be represented by a black Member.
Ashley Etienne, Bell’s campaign spokesman, said that line of attack is playing right into Republican redistricters’ hands.
“This divisive redistricting battle was meant to do exactly what Judge Green is trying to do, which is divide us,” she said.
Thanks largely to a $300,000 personal donation, Green has stayed financially competitive with Bell.
The Democratic primary in the 28th district between Rep. Ciro Rodriguez and former Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar has also turned negative in recent days.
Rodriguez has cast Cuellar as closely aligned with Republicans (he was appointed secretary of state by GOP Gov. Rick Perry), while Cuellar has accused Rodriguez of absenteeism.
“We have made sure people understand that [Cuellar] has close Republican ties,” said Rodriguez spokesman John Puder. “In a Democratic primary that doesn’t play well.”
Cuellar consultant Bob Doyle responded that in the final week of the campaign, “we closed the way we wanted to.”
Both men will attempt to hold their geographic bases together while making enough inroads in their opponents’ territory to put them over the top.
For Rodriguez, he must show strong in Bexar County (San Antonio) in the district’s northern end; Cuellar needs to maximize the vote in Webb County (Laredo), the southern anchor of the seat.
By all accounts, Cuellar, who narrowly lost a 2002 challenge to Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) in the 23rd district, has run an aggressive campaign and taken the fight to Rodriguez.
He has loaned his campaign more than $250,000 to this point.
Some neutral observers wonder whether Rodriguez started his campaign too late, giving Cuellar a chance to define himself positively in voters’ minds.
Puder maintains that the campaign is right on schedule.
“We were going to make our media buy in the last two weeks of the campaign and make sure we were on heavy,” Puder said. He estimated that both sides would spend $500,000 on the race.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s (D) primary against former state District Judge Leticia Hinojosa has been more low-key than the races of Bell or Rodriguez, but both sides expect it to be close.
After Republican redistricters turned his Austin-based 10th district into a Republican stronghold, Doggett announced he would run in the new 25th district, which runs from the Austin suburbs to the Mexican border.
The district is 63 percent Hispanic, and while a number of Latino elected officials contemplated the race, Hinojosa is the only serious candidate running.
Doggett entered the race as one of the most well-heeled Democratic incumbents in the country; as of Feb. 18 he had spent $680,000 on the race with $1.9 million still in the bank.
Hinojosa had spent $236,000 at that time with just $13,000 in the bank.
Despite Doggett’s huge fundraising edge, the seat’s geography seems to point to a close race.
Doggett must win by a wide margin in Travis County (Austin) and nearby Gonzales, Caldwell, Karnes and Live Oak counties to offset Hinojosa’s expected edge in the heavily Hispanic border counties.
Several sources on both sides of the aisle said that heavy early voting in Hidalgo County (the most populated of the border counties) seems to bode well for Hinojosa.
Early voting began for today’s primary on Feb. 23.
GOP Poised to Make Gains
Aside from these three contests involving Democratic incumbents, all of the action today is on the Republican side.
In Texas’ 10th, 11th and 24th districts a slew of GOPers are competing with the eventual primary winner expected to face little opposition come November.
The 10th district, which spans from Austin to Houston, features a bevy of candidates, several of whom are spending massive amounts of personal money on the race.
Leading the spending spree is businessman Ben Streusand (R), who had donated more than $2.3 million to his campaign. Streusand was up on Houston and Austin broadcast television as early as December, even before the lines were finalized.
Running second in the self-funding sweepstakes is former federal prosecutor Mike McCaul, who has dumped $645,000 into the race.
McCaul has the added advantage of being the one serious candidate from the Austin area, which nearly guarantees him a spot in the April 13 runoff; a runoff will be triggered if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote today.
Attorney Dave Phillips has put in $422,000 of his own cash and is seen as the only other candidate with a chance to sneak into the runoff.
In the 11th district, centered in Midland, accountant Mike Conaway (R) is expected to avoid a runoff and become the de facto Member. Conaway lost narrowly to Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) in a 2003 special election in the old 19th district.
Similarly in the Dallas-based 24th district, state Rep. Kenny Marchant (R) should garner more than 50 percent of the vote and will not face serious opposition in November.
In the 1st, 2nd and 17th districts Republicans are battling for the right to face Democratic incumbents in districts that tilt toward the GOP.
The most clear-cut race is in the 2nd district, where former state District Judge Ted Poe holds a clear edge over his Republican primary opponents.
Poe will be at or near the 50 percent threshold, agreed state Republican strategists, with free-spending former Enron executive George Fastuca the only candidate who could push the race to a runoff. Fastuca had donated more than $475,000 from his own pocket through March 2. The winner will face Rep. Nick Lampson (D).
In the Central Texas 17th district, state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R) has the lead with former Waco school board member Dot Snyder (R) fighting to the keep the state legislator under 50 percent in the primary.
The key to the equation looks likely to be retired Army Col. Dave McIntyre. Although McIntyre has little chance of winning, he has a base in Brazos County (College Station) that makes him a factor in the race.
One Republican strategist not affiliated with any of the candidates predicted that if McIntyre could pull double digits, Snyder would likely push Wohlgemuth to a runoff. If not, Wohlgemuth will head straight to the general election race against Rep. Chet Edwards (D).
The 1st district race in East Texas is the most up in the air.
Any of four Republican candidates could advance to the mid-April runoff, with the winner set to square off against Rep. Max Sandlin (D).
State Rep. Wayne Christian (R) is the only candidate in the race with a real political base.
Ophthalmologist Lyle Thorstenson (R) has spent the most on the race (much of it from personal donations), while 2002 4th district nominee John Graves began the contest with the highest name identification in the field.
Republican observers also see former Judge Louis Gohmert as a possible runoff competitor.
Mississippi: All Quiet
Mississippi voters will also go to the polls today, though the Congressional races are expected to be very quiet affairs.
There is no Senate race on the docket in the Magnolia State in 2004. The state’s four House incumbents are running unopposed for renomination, and two Republican Members — Reps. Roger Wicker and Chip Pickering — do not even have Democrats seeking to unseat them this November.
There are Republican primaries to select nominees against the two Democratic incumbents, Reps. Bennie Thompson and Gene Taylor.
There is a three-way GOP primary in Thompson’s 2nd district, though Clinton LeSueur, the 2002 nominee, is the nominal favorite in the majority-black district. LeSueur, who held Thompson to 55 percent of the vote last cycle, is a former journalist and one-time legislative aide to the District of Columbia City Council. He faces James Broadwater, a minister, and Stephanie Summers-O’Neal, CEO of an export consulting company, in the Republican primary.
In Taylor’s 4th district, state Rep. Mike Lott is the heavy favorite in the three-way GOP primary. Although Taylor is considered a lock for re-election, Republicans are poised to take back his Gulf Coast seat whenever he moves on. Lott, who is not related to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), has rejected the notion that he is running this time just to get ahead of the GOP pack in case Taylor retires in the next few years.
If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote in today’s primaries, the top two finishers proceed to a March 30 runoff.
Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.