Between The Lines

Posted March 28, 2007 at 6:21pm

In Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson, Republicans could have a formidable challenger to Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) next year in Texas’ 23rd district.

But with the primary less than a year away, the GOP appears slow in launching a campaign to oust Rodriguez — or other Democratic incumbents whose district boundaries were hastily redrawn by a federal court last summer.

Rodriguez, who in a Dec. 12 runoff dumped

incumbent Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) in the newly drawn 23rd district, could be vulnerable heading into 2008. And Larson, who returned to Texas on Wednesday after spending a few days in Washington, D.C., discussing a prospective bid for the seat with Republican leaders and interest groups, believes he could be the man to reclaim the district for the GOP.

“I feel that I could garner a lot of support and make a strong showing in the general election, so I’m definitely interested at this point,” Larson said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “There is a real opportunity to get this seat back if the right candidate runs.”

The San Antonio-area 23rd district, while more hospitable for Democrats than before a court-ordered remap took effect last fall, still leans Republican, handing President Bush 57 percent of the vote in 2004.

But with the primary scheduled for March 4 and a bill working its way through the Texas Legislature that could move it up to Feb. 5, GOP operatives both in Washington, D.C., and in the district still had little to say Wednesday about their plans for ousting Rodriguez.

The National Republican Congressional Committee declined to discuss the race beyond saying that the recruiting process is ongoing.

However, Larson said that while on his trip he met with NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and other interested Republicans who encouraged him to run. Larson, who has served in local government for 15 years, said he would expect to have the support of the business community and Republican leaders in the district, should he choose to run.

“I’ve got a lot of business support,” Larson said. “They’ve been mine for 15 years; they’re ready when I’m ready.”

If Larson runs, he will have to resign his county commissioner position. His timetable for deciding is August or September.

Democrats are at least somewhat concerned about Rodriguez’s 2008 prospects, as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put him in its Frontline program for potentially vulnerable incumbents.

This entitles Rodriguez to the kind of extra fundraising and operational assistance from the committee that history suggests he’ll need to hold onto his seat. Rodriguez has never been a stellar fundraiser, and he was ousted from his seat in the nearby 28th district in the 2004 Democratic primary.

Still, DCCC spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said Wednesday that committee strategists are confident Rodriguez will win re-election next year, in large part because he beat Bonilla despite being outspent by the Republican by about a 2-1 margin, and because they see his district trending Democratic over time.

The DCCC also has taken special note of the Republicans’ inability to gin up a formidable candidate.

“Ciro Rodriguez is a battle-tested, effective Member of Congress, and the environment in Texas 23 is only getting better for him,” Jennings said, adding: “The Republicans failed to convince Bonilla to run again and have failed to recruit another candidate.”

The 23rd district, which runs from San Antonio west to the edge of El Paso, was redrawn in 2006 as a result of a Supreme Court decision striking down a portion of the 2003 remap of Lone Star State House seats engineered by then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas.)

As a result of the court ruling, five districts were slightly adjusted, with their new boundaries taking effect for the Nov. 7 elections, including Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R) 21st district, which remains strongly Republican.

Bonilla suffered the most, losing a significant portion of his Republican constituents in favor a Hispanic population that has historically voted for Democratic Congressional candidates. Although the Republican nearly won the Nov. 7 special general election election outright, he lost the December runoff to Rodriguez.

Meanwhile, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) in the 28th district and Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D) in the 25th district also took a hit, ending up with districts that are now slightly more Republican, but they survived the Nov. 7 contest without a problem. Cuellar’s new seat delivered 54 percent of its vote to Bush in 2004, with the president garnering 46 percent in Doggett’s district.

NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said efforts to recruit candidates in those two districts are under way. Additionally, Republicans are examining opportunities to target Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D) in the 15th district, whose seat became a little more friendly to Democrats, but with the new lines still gave Bush 51 percent of the vote in 2004.

But where the GOP’s odds should be the best, in the 23rd district against Rodriguez, Republicans appear slow to advance.

“We have a number of people that have expressed interest in that seat, and are actively engaged and in the recruiting process,” is all Spain would say.

Though Rodriguez beat Bonilla, he lost to Cuellar in the 28th district Democratic primary when he was defending that seat in 2004, and lost again to Cuellar in the 2006 primary while attempting to reclaim the seat.

Yet despite Rodriguez’s potential weakness and the district’s slight tilt to the right, no top-tier Republican candidate has formally entered the race. And, a concerted strategy to soften up Rodriguez does not appear under way, either locally or in Washington — although the NRCC has been blanketing local media with press hits critical of his floor votes.

A Republican operative based in Texas who is familiar GOP efforts in the county to oust Rodriguez said the NRCC has yet to make contact with the Bexar County Republican Party. This operative said the county GOP is in the process of “re-energizing and rebuilding the” the region’s Republican grass-roots and donor base.

“It’s ours to win,” this GOP insider said, of the 23rd district.

Thus far, two Republicans have formally entered the race for the GOP nomination to the 23rd district: Marketing executive Jim McGrody and Francisco Quico Canseco, an attorney who previously ran for Congress in the 28th district.