November 7, 2014
GOP Lawmaker Who Spurned Democrats Relies
on Personal Touch to Rise Above Partisan Fray
Best Statewide Campaign: Greg Abbott
Best Open Campaign: Wayne Faircloth
Best Challenger Campaign: Rick Galindo
Best Texas Campaign Upset: Gilbert Pena
The biennial Capitol Inside Best of the General Election honors will be rolled out during the next week in installments on individual categories. The presentation gets under way today with the most outstanding performance by an incumbent in a race on the Texas ballot this fall. And the winner is ...
Best Incumbent Campaign
In a state where the Democrats poured a fortune into a governor's race they had no chance whatsoever of winning, the House District 43 race was arguably the most critical contest on the fall ballot in terms of a barometer for the minority party's visions of an eventual comeback here. HD 43 is a microcosm of the Texas of the future where Democrats fancy themselves on top of the mountain again - and that's why a win there could have taken a lot of the sting out of another totally predictable GOP statewide sweep.
State Rep. J.M. Lozano of Kingsville had already given Democratic loyalists all the reason they'd ever need to want to beat him when he'd bolted to the GOP the moment the South Texas seat that he'd held for a year as a Democrat was converted into a swing district in the 2011 redistricting process. While party switches are always viewed as blatantly opportunistic, the Lozano defection appeared to be a dangerous gamble in a district that was still more than 60 percent Hispanic despite the partisan parity on paper. So the Democratic powers that be - fueled with a renewed sense of optimism and vigor that the Battleground Texas operation had inspired with its conception last year - went after Lozano with a vengeance in a race that his enemies were predicting that they'd win until the bitter end.
But the Democrats discovered this week on election night that they'd underestimated Lozano more than Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and all of the other Republicans on the Texas ballot combined. The significance of Lozano's victory over Democratic challenger Kim Gonzalez cannot be overstated, however, in a district where the second-term incumbent ran up the score with more than 61 percent of the vote in the general election. But the HD 43 race wasn't like all of the other ostensibly competitive House races that candidates were going to win simply because they had an R by their names regardless of how good or bad their campaigns had been.
Lozano - a fast food restaurant entrepreneur who'd unseated a Democratic incumbent in the bitter 2010 primary battle - blew the competition away with a campaign that had been customized for a unique skill set and strengths in a way that transcended the partisan parameters and warfare in which this year's Texas elections played out. Lozano - first and foremost - depended on personal likability and the positive association and networking opportunities that family and old and new friends provided to overcome the Benedict Arnold portrayals and attempts to brand him as a radical right-wing extremists as a direct reflection of party affiliation.
As a native of Jim Wells County - the second largest and most heavily Democratic area in HD 43 - Lozano made his home base his number one campaign priority in a part of the state where no Republican had ever won until he did there Tuesday night. While the Democratic statewide contenders were winning by double-digits in Jim Wells, Lozano made history by capturing 58 percent of his home county vote in a blind siding development that the Democrats hadn't imagined much less seen coming. Having reached if not exceeded expect ions with 60 percent or more in the district's other three counties including Gonzalez' home turf of San Patricio, Lozano's victory in Jim Wells County and it's relatively wide margin should be a nightmarish wake up call for Democrats who've been assuming that explosive Hispanic growth across the state would be there ticket back to power at some point.
Lozano - in contrast - took nothing for granted as a candidate who ran from start to finish like he was behind and destined to lose if he didn't outwork and outsmart the opposition. Lozano refused to be drawn into the traps that his opponents had set with a handful of Gonzalez attack mailers that sought to make the incumbent look like an unethical lawmaker who'd sold his soul by siding with the same folks who'd slashed $5 billion from public school budgets just to save his own political hide. But Lozano caught the Democrats who despise him off guard when he resisted the temptation to fight fire with fire and stayed on the high road that he'd mapped out from day one. The positive approach was all the more challenging when the Battleground Texas operation sent reinforcements to the Gonzalez campaign who vowed to beat the traitor incumbent like an old drum.
As a Republican, however, Lozano had an inherent financial advantage with major GOP forces givers like the Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the Association Republicans of Texas and the leadership committee that House Speaker Joe Straus controls in his corner. That made it possible for Lozano to pitch a positive image and message in television ads that his Democratic foe couldn't really afford along with an extensive direct mail campaign, phone banks, social media and the guidance that an adviser with vast local expertise like Steve Ray could provide. Lozano also had the benefit of Governor-elect Greg Abbott's GOTV effort in South Texas to counter the Battleground Texas grassroots push on his Democratic rival's behalf. But Lozano may have helped Abbott and the GOP slate more than the other way around in HD 43.
But Lozano knew when he changed parties that he'd have to become a big-time juggler if he hoped to survive in a part of the state that Democrats owned not long ago - and he accomplished that with a relatively moderate voting record as a legislator and a mix of support across the ideological spectrum as a candidate. The balancing act was on display when U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, the ultimate tea party darling, appeared at a fundraiser on Lozano's behalf in the home base of his Democratic foe who's a San Patricio County resident that works as an assistant prosecutor across the bridge in Corpus Christi.
In the final analysis, however, Lozano's greatest asset proved to be the way the authentic personal connection that he's made over the course of a lifetime in an area where quite a few folks who'd never voted for a Republican in their lives checked the box by the GOP nominee's name in the HD 43 race in the fall of 2014.
Coming Up Next: Best Statewide Campaign in the General Election