November 13, 2012

Texas Dems Make Most of Limited Opportunities
But Hispanic House Win Gives GOP Future Hope

Senate Democrat Reaps Top Honor by Taking Offensive in Seat Defense
as Minority Party Comes Up Big in Most Competitive Texas Races in Fall

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

Eight years have elapsed since Democrats had a majority in the Texas congressional delegation - and it's been an even longer since the party that ruled the state for more than a century controlled either legislative chamber in Austin. No Democrat has won statewide in Texas since 1994 - and the best that the minority party managed to do at that level this time this fall came when their nominee held an incumbent Republican below 54 percent in a state Supreme Court race.

But the Democrats who were blown apart in Texas by the great Republican wave of 2010 bounced back this year on the legislative and congressional battlefields where they won every race they were favored to win and capped it all off with victories in a few other contests with the odds stacked against them.

While the lion's share of the political action around the state unfolded in the GOP primary and summer runoff elections, the Capitol Inside Best of the General Election awards are dominated by Democrats who prevailed in some of the most critically competitive down-ballot fights in Texas this fall.

State Senator Wendy Davis of Fort Worth was an easy selection for Valuable Campaign honors as the Democrat who won in the most Republican district when she held off a late surge by Republican State Rep. Mark Shelton in her first bid for re-election in a district that the GOP had high hopes of reclaiming this year.

An attorney and former city council member who'd earned a ticket to Austin by knocking off a longtime Republican incumbent four years ago, Davis had set herself up to be the GOP's number one target in Texas this year as a legislative assassin who wasn't shy about killing bills that the majority party viewed as high priorities during her first Senate term. GOP leaders and legislators had sought without success to take Davis out in redistricting when they redesigned her Tarrant County district in a way that would have put it out of the Democrats' reach for at least another decade. But Davis took the party in power to court and scored a major victory when a three-judge federal panel threw out the legislative and congressional plans that the Republican majority had approved and eventually replaced with interim maps for the 2012 Texas elections. Davis' district was one of the few in urban and suburban areas that looked exactly on the court map like it has since she was elected to represent it when Barack Obama was crowning the ticket for the first time in 2008.

Senate District 10 still leaned considerably Republican, however, and the seat probably would have never switched partisan hands if the Democrats had nominated anyone besides Davis herself in the past two cycles. Shelton predicted when he took aim at the seat that Davis would be a one-term wonder until he wrestled the seat back to the GOP's side of the ledger this year. Davis had caught the last GOP foe by surprise in an election year when she and several underdog Democrats won suburban House seats with a boost from a record turnout that the Obama campaign engineered. But the Democrats in Washington would be a liability in 2012 like they'd been during the backlash election two years ago - and Davis had established a record that would make a mighty fine target in a district where Republican voters had outnumbered Democrats in all of the other contests on the ballot in SD 10 in recent years.

But Davis offered no apologies for the votes that she'd cast during her first term or the positions that had triggered the wrath of Republicans who branded her repeatedly as a tax and spend liberal who'd allegedly cashed in on her powerful public post to enrich her law practice. She didn't pay a lot of attention to trial lawyer albatross that Republicans are always trying to string around their Democratic opponents' necks - and she essentially recycled the playbook she'd used four years ago and customized it for her second go-round with a campaign that played offense aggressively and relentlessly to keep her off the defensive.

While a countless number of factors contributed to the final outcome of the SD 10 race that Davis won last week with slightly more than 51 percent of the vote, the key to victory first and foremost for the first-term state lawmaker was a fundraising apparatus that seemed more like a character from the Transformers franchise than the standard political war chest. Davis rounded up a record-shattering $4 million give or take during the last two years for a re-election bid that didn't require any early spending on a primary that she won without opposition. She was able to spend even more - thanks to a $620,000 surplus that she had heading into 2011. Shelton raised a sizeable amount of money himself - and he could have stayed closer in the cash chase if he hadn't turned down a million bucks near the end of the race because he thought it came with too many strings.

Davis knew that the cash mountain she'd amassed wouldn't be worth near as much if she didn't spend it wisely. So she appeared to earmark the bulk of her bulging campaign bank account for two basic needs: television advertising and voter turnout. Davis only aired two TV spots - the first being a positive piece that made her look like a modern-day version of Abraham Lincoln with longer and lighter-colored hair. The ad portrayed the Senate Democrat as a local who'd overcome a hardscrabble upbringing on the road to a college education that she had to work hard to earn before it culminated with a degree from Harvard Law School. Davis remained positive for a week or so before going on the attack throughout the final month of the race with an ad that gave the impression that Shelton sympathized with rapists as a result of a vote that he'd cast as a legislator.

The Davis ad pointed out that Shelton had been one of only eight House members who voted against a measure that she'd sponsored as a way to reduce a backlog of rape cases in the criminal justice system. The so-called "rape kit" commercial - of course - didn't give Shelton an opportunity to tell his side of the story on legislation that he'd opposed because it relied on the kind of diversionary funding that Republicans have been promising to end. The last thing in the world Shelton wanted to do was make women in Texas more vulnerable to sex crimes - but you wouldn't know that by watching the broadcast spot that Davis used to draw blood and keep it flowing until the bitter end. The anti-Shelton ad had more inherent shock value than the flurry of questions that the GOP nominee raised about contracts with state agencies that the senator's new law firm had secured and the accusations of blatant ethics violations that could lead to a post-election investigation.

The second part of the winning Davis equation was more of a collaboration as she and Democratic State Rep. Marc Veasey teamed up to produce a phenomenon turnout among minority voters in general and African-Americans specifically in the sections of Tarrant County that they represent. Veasey was a prohibitive favorite over token GOP and Green Party opposition in a race in an overlapping district for a newly-created congressional seat - and the partnership that helped keep Davis on the winning path should benefit them both exponentially in the future in a county that's been solid red outside of the neighborhoods where the two of them are strongest.

In a state where Obama's share of the vote dropped from 44 percent in 2008 to 41 percent this year, it's hard to make the case that the president had any significant coattails in the SD 10 race or several other highly-competitive contests that Democrats won in battles for Congress and the Legislature. But Davis, a by-product of the old Martin Frost machine in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that he represented in Congress for several decades, appeared to rely more on the Obama turnout model without direct help from the top of the ticket in 2012. While Obama lost to Mitt Romney in Texas when the president received 93 percent of the total vote that he'd claimed here four years ago, Davis garnered 99.4 percent of the amount she'd tallied in 2008 when she staved off the Shelton challenge last week. Davis - in other words - received 857 fewer votes in her re-election bid than she'd pulled in her debut campaign at a time when Democratic turnout went through the roof in areas like the one where she'll be a senator for at least two more years.

Shelton is not as glamorous as Davis as far as political candidates go - and the greatest campaign in the world couldn't change that. But Shelton did manage to narrow a significant early lead for the incumbent that his internal polling detected before time ran out. Shelton - for the record - received 99.9 percent as many votes as Republican Kim Brimer had when Davis unseated him in 2008. And while the Republican Senate challenger didn't do as well in SD 10 as Romney, who appeared to fall below the 53 percent mark there compared to 57 percent statewide, the GOP White House nominee should be glad that he didn't have to run against Wendy Davis there or anywhere for that matter.

Jason Villalba
Best Campaign - Primary & General

United States Senator-elect Ted Cruz may have owned the headlines in Texas and beyond during the past six months - but Jason Villalba could be the best thing that happened to the Texas GOP in 2012.

The conservative base that's commonly referred to these days as the tea party flexed unprecedented muscle in the Texas primary and runoff election from which Cruz emerged as the U.S. Senate nominee with a stunning upset victory over Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. But Cruz reminded the Texas political world that he's not the Mexican-American messiah that Republicans will need to remain relevant in Texas in the future when he beat Democrat Paul Sadler in the general election with a smaller slice of the vote than GOP White House hopeful Mitt Romney garnered here at the top of the ticket. Villalba - at least - is a step in that direction.

Cruz is a bona fide superstar who has the potential to make a major imprint on the national political scene for years to come. But Texas Republicans know that they must make deeper inroads into the traditional Hispanic vote to keep the Democrats at bay as long as possible and to prevent Democratic domination in the long term. And there's nothing traditional about Cruz, who's a conservative Republican like most Cuban descendants in contrast to most Texas Latinos who trace their roots to Mexico and tend to back Democrats at the ballot box and have shown few signs of being on the verge of breaking this behavior that's culturally induced.

Villalba is the real thing when it comes to standard Texas Hispanic - even though he's been more successful in politics and life in general than most people regardless of the ethnicity they inherited at birth. The Dallas lawyer had banner year in the political arena as one of the few Texas candidates to win truly competitive races in both the primary and general elections.

Villalba - the current leader of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly chapter in Dallas and immediate past vice-chairman of the county GOP - claimed an impressive victory in a summer runoff that former House member Bill Keffer had been a slight favorite to win as the clear-cut conservative choice in an open House District 114 race. Republican State Rep. Will Hartnett had occupied the seat on the north side of Dallas for more than two decades before he decided to give it up without a re-election bid this year. But HD 114 had undergone significant revisions on the House map that a federal court had drafted for the 2012 cycle - and Keffer had represented a portion of the voters there as the former representative in a neighboring district that had been carved up as well.

Villalba might have been a better fit in a handful of other suburban House districts that the GOP holds in parts of Dallas County where less than half of the residents are Anglo. HD 114 isn't quite as diverse - with a voting age population that's 54 percent white, 28 percent Hispanic and 17 percent African-American. The remaining 5 percent of the residents in the district that Villalba was running to represent are Asian or Indian - groups that aren't easy to classify from the partisan political perspective.

While most of the Republicans whose support he needed initially are relatively conservative and Anglo, Villalba staked out the middle ground immediately with a parade of celebrity supporters including retiring U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, outgoing State Senator Florence Shapiro and Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach. The big name Republicans in Villalba's camp followed up endorsements with appearances at fundraisers and other events in a way that introduced him to voters as quickly as possible and established instant credibility with the party establishment and business community.

Villalba was willing to effectively concede the far right to Keffer in exchange for vigorous support from education advocates who played a key role in the runoff when he edged Keffer out with less than 52 percent of the vote. Villalba was one of very few Republicans who won competitive primary battles without tea party support - but that put him on much stronger ground for a general election fight that had the potential to be just as close with former House Democrat Carol Kent competing against him.

Villalba was one of the few if not the only Republican state House contender that Mitt Romney endorsed for the general election. But Villalba - unlike Romney - didn't have to try scramble back to the middle of the road from the far right because he never left it like the GOP's White House nominee decided he'd have to do to win the nomination.

Kent would pose a formidable threat as a former legislator who'd proven herself to be a prolific fundraiser before falling victim in her first re-election bid in 2010 to the giant red tide that swept Republicans to the supermajority in the west wing. Kent - sure enough - generated more than a half-million dollars for her comeback campaign - thanks in part to her ability to tap a vast network of Baylor University alumni that she'd directed when she won a House seat in an adjoining swing district in 2008. But Villalba, who'd topped the quarter-million dollar mark in fundraising before the primary election this past spring, managed to match Kent in the money derby as the fall campaigns unfolded before he beat her in going-away fashion with more than 54 percent of the November vote.

For all the publicity that Cruz attracted with his historic U.S. Senate bid, a Villalba loss at the polls last week would have been disastrous for the GOP's long-term prospects even though it would have gone largely unnoticed outside DFW. The victory that Villalba scored against two very tough opponents can be a big-time building block for a Texas GOP that also has a young fellow by the name of George P. Bush on the verge of his political debut as a probable statewide contender in 2014.

Honorable Mention: Ted Cruz (U.S. Senate Republican)

Craig Eiland
Best Campaign - Incumbent

State Rep. Craig Eiland had the luxury of a wake-up call in 2010 when almost all of the Democrats in competitive Texas House races were buried by a monstrous tidal wave that would have him drowned him as well if the GOP had fielded a semi-viable candidate in House District 23.

Lesser politicians who'd grown accustomed to going unchallenged might have been inclined to dismiss the 2010 election as a freak aberration if they'd survived it like Eiland had done with less than 54 percent of the vote against a GOP foe who was little more than a name on the ballot. It was the closest that any Republican had ever come in a race against the veteran lawmaker who'd entered the state House back in 1995 when Democrats were still running the show on both sides of the rotunda.

But Eiland happens to be one of the more cerebral and politically savvy state legislators this side of the Canadian border - and as the only surviving House Democrat in a district with a Republican tilt - he knew that he would have to run like he was going to lose if he didn't when the GOP made him the number one target on the lower chamber battlefield in 2012.

The challenge intensified when the Republican candidate who looked strongest on paper - former Dickinson City Council member Wayne Faircloth - won a summer primary runoff and headed into the fall with the GOP's heaviest artillery at his fingertips. But Eiland wasn't a marked man simply because he appeared to more vulnerable on paper than any other House Democrat in a re-election bid on the ballot this year. The Republicans wanted to beat Eiland more than other Democrats in large part because he's a trial lawyer who'd made a ton of money in recent years suing insurance companies over property damages that Hurricane Ike inflicted on the coastal area that he represents four years ago. To make matters worse - in GOP eyes - Eiland had teamed up with Houston attorney Steve Mostyn on some of the litigation that produced huge settlements through the state-subsidized windstorm coverage system. Mostyn is synonymous with satan in the minds of partisan Republicans as a superstar trial lawyer who's been the biggest Democratic donor in Texas by far during the past five years.

So it came as no surprise when tort reform advocates and other major GOP donors did their best to ensure that Faircloth had more money than the incumbent for a race that would have a combined price tag of nearly $1.4 million by the bitter end. The Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC poured $200,000 alone into the challenger's campaign to match the amounts that Eiland was getting from fellow trial lawyers while upping as the battle unfolded.

But Eiland has the gift of anticipation that's a prerequisite for success in his particular occupation - and he was prepared well for the first line of attack in a double-barrel strategy that Faircloth and the Republicans employed. When the challenger's campaign accused the incumbent of bleeding money from taxpayers with a legal assault on the Texas Windstorm Insurance Agency, Eiland countered by contending that TWIA and other major insurers had set the stage by denying legitimate claims to thousands of homeowners and businesses on or near the coast in the wake of the most destructive storm to hit the Houston-Galveston area in more than two decades. The counter charges had a personal edge in Faircloth's case given the fact that he happens to be a State Farm Insurance agent - and that had the effect of neutralizing the torpedoes that the challenger had been firing at Eiland over his very direct ties to the plaintiffs bar.

The second part of the challenger's double-whammy seemed to catch Eiland off guard more than the uproar about lawyers and lawsuits that he'd expected. Faircloth appeared to land a potentially staggering blow when he began accusing in the final month of the race of being an AWOL legislator who'd purchased a fancy home in the Austin area and relocated there before masquerading as an islander once campaign season got under way with a real opponent. The allegations were tough to fend off when Eiland's $3 million home in the Capital City was worth six times more than his Galveston residence in the city's historic district. But Eiland's camp sought to mitigate the sting by getting supporters to spread the word about how he good of a neighbor the incumbent had been and continued to be regardless of what voters might have been hearing to the contrary.

The debate in almost all the other competitive races in Texas had revolved on public education and other substantive issues like women's health care. But Eiland took a different approach by framing his sales pitch on a theme of effective leadership - and he pointed to the leadership role that he'd played in Austin on hurricane relief and recovery as the centerpiece.

Eiland's day job and partisan status hadn't stopped him from earning a reputation over the years as a lawmaker who worked across party lines in an ever-respectful and non-confrontational manner. Eiland had been Republican Speaker Joe Straus' first speaker pro tem - and he'd been a major player before and after that on state budget, insurance and other key issues regardless of which party had the majority and who the House leader happened to be.

The word inside the Austin beltway as the general election grew closer was that the HD 23 race appeared to on track for a photo finish ending and that Eiland was acting like an incumbent who seemed very concerned that he might be going down. But Eiland had customized his campaign for his individual strengths and vulnerabilities - and while he ended up having about $100,000 less for the race than his GOP foe - he used the $630,000 war chest that he'd amassed for the right mix of air war and ground game en route to an impressive victory with almost 54 percent of the vote last week.

Honorable Mention: Hubert Vo (HD 149 Democrat)

Mary Ann Perez
Best Campaign - Open Race

Mary Ann Perez had two inherent advantages when she headed into the fall as the Democratic nominee in the race for the House District 144 seat on the east side of the Houston area. Perez - for starters - appeared to be about the best possible candidate that the Democrats could hope to find in a House district like the one where she launched her first campaign for the Legislature more than a year ago. She had experience in politics and governing as a Houston Community College trustee who didn't have to give up the local post to run at the state level. She had a resume that identified her as small business person as the owner of a Farmers Insurance agency. She had charisma and people skills and the ability to articulate a vision and approach on the issues that would sell best in a swath of blue-collar America where the lion's share of the people make their living in the plants on or near the Houston Ship Channel. Perez had demonstrated that she had the party establishment firmly in her corner when she'd won the nomination in the open HD 144 race this past spring in a battle with two formidable rivals without the need for runoff.

On top of being a top-flight candidate, Perez had the inside track when she entered the general election battle with Republican David Pineda as a result of the way HD 144 had been converted from GOP territory to full-fledged swing district on an interim map that a federal court map had drawn as part of a legal war on redistricting. The judges had turned a district that had been shaped vertically on its side in a move that roped in more of the residential and industrial neighborhoods that line the ship channel while swapping out parts of Pasadena and Houston with others that had higher concentrations of Hispanics and fewer white residents than the current version of HD 144. The Latino share of the population in HD 144 jumped 19 percent on the court map in a corresponding 10-point drop in the percentage of Anglos who live inside the redesigned district's boundaries. The judges in effect turned a red district a light shade of blue in an area where the Democratic statewide slates had received 50 percent of the vote in the last two elections compared to the GOP's 58 percent haul in the version of HD 144 that's now obsolete.

But Perez hadn't been sitting around during the map wrangling at the courthouse and waiting to have a House district gift-wrapped and handed to her on a silver platter. She thrown her hat into the ring in the fall of 2011 when the Republican incumbent Ken Legler was planning to seek a third term on a map that GOP colleagues at the Capitol had fashioned in a way that they thought would all but guarantee that HD 144 remained on their side of the ledger for another 10 years. While Legler's district in the Legislature's plan would have had a slight Hispanic plurality in the voting age population, it would have been expected to remain red as a result of the Latino's history of turning out to vote in low numbers. Democrats who'd thought they would win the HD 144 seat in 2008 when Leglar claimed it instead would face a much steeper challenge on the map that emerged from the session last year. So the playing field was slanted against Perez in the infant stages of her campaign for the House - and there was no way at the time that the three-judge federal panel in San Antonio would overhaul HD 144 in a way that appeared to give her a slight edge on paper as the Democratic nominee.

Legler took a quick look at the court plan and wasted no time announcing that he wouldn't be running again. Legler's exit from the HD 144 race set the stage for a GOP primary battle for the right to replace him - and Pineda turned out to be a better potential contender than anyone on either side of the aisle had initially expected when he declared his intentions to run for the upcoming vacancy. Pineda had been on the Earth for less than 29 years - and he didn't have a background in elected office or politics in general like the Democrat he'd face at the polls in November. But Pineda and the Republicans hoped that he'd make up for that with a bio that played up his service to the country as a U.S. Marines veteran who'd been to war and return with a desire to keep serving as a part-time citizen legislator. And more importantly perhaps, Pineda is a Hispanic in a state where the voters had elected a record number of Latino Republican state legislators two years ago. When the GOP powers that be decided that Pineda had a decent shot at winning, they sought to ensure that he'd have the resources to sufficiently compete with a stellar Democratic foe.

Like all of the other competitive races for the Texas Legislature in 2012 and years past, the HD 144 would evolve into a proxy fight between pro-Pineda business interests that support tort reform and trial lawyers who favor Democrats like Perez in general elections. Perez would have Houston lawyer Steve Mostyn for help in the money department while Pineda would match it with five-figure support from Houston home builder Bob Perry. By the time the candidates reached the finish line, however, Pineda would be a big winner in the fundraising derby after bringing in more than $565,000 - about $215,000 more than Perez generated for her own campaign.

While Perez may have been compelled to go softer on Pineda as a result of his military service, she responded to an expected attack on her record as a college community board member who voted for a bond issue that's prompting higher local taxes by defending it rather than run and hide from it. But Perez pointed out that a revenue boost at the local level for campus expansions and better classroom technology was necessitated in significant part by major cuts in state funding - and while that position might have bombed in more affluent areas - it was a popular road to take in an area where parents who've performed manuel labor most of their adult lives see education as a ticket to a better future for their kids. Perez pointed out that she would have to pay the taxes she voted to raise and wouldn't have backed them if they weren't necessary.

Perez concentrated on an intensive ground game that she complimented with direct mail - and despite an unintended helping hand she could expect from a Libertarian who'd drain a few votes away from the GOP nominee - she seemed to run as though the district hadn't changed and her main foe was an incumbent like the one she'd initially planned to challenge.

Ken Leger died of a fatal heart attack this summer in a tragic development that prompted his widow Barbara Legler to run as the only candidate in a special election to fill out the final two months of her late husband's term. But Legler's death in hindsight seems kind of like a foreshadowing of what was to come in the House district he'd represented for almost two terms. When veteran Democratic State Senator Mario Gallegos died a month before the general election, Perez was moved to reflect on how he'd been her mentor and coach and source of inspiration for the state race. Whether calculated or purely sentimental, old pictures of Gallegos and Perez that the HD 144 candidate posted on her web site were the perfect final touch to a race that she would have won even if the senator had been alive and well and watching her cross the finish line when she captured the seat with 52 percent of the vote in a general election that some folks on both sides thought she might be in danger of losing.

Honorable Mention: Randy Weber (CD 14 Republican)

Pete Gallego
Best Campaign - Challenger

State Rep. Pete Gallego had appeared to put stock in the concept of patience as a virtue as his name popped up on a perennial basis as a possible candidate for higher office in a race that seemed inevitable but was always delayed. But Gallego - a former West Texas prosecutor who'd been one of the most influential Democrats in the Texas House before and after the GOP seized control of the lower chamber 10 years ago - was simply waiting for the right time and place before picking a fight that would be a point of no return for his political career.

Gallego, who's based in the tiny town of Alpine, appeared to be the Democratic heir apparent to the party's nomination in the race against freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco for the Congressional District 23 seat that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso. A 22-year legislative veteran who'd evolved over the years into a pillar in the party establishment and a darling of trial lawyers who've kept the Democrats afloat in lean times, Gallego entered the CD 23 race as a challenger who had been around the block more times than the incumbent in the battle could count. Canseco, a businessman and lawyer who'd moved from Laredo to San Antonio, had won for the first time in his third congressional bid when he unseated longtime Democratic lawmaker Ciro Rodriguez in 2010 with a significant boost from an anti-Obama midterm backlash. And then more than a year later - when Gallego thought he had a clear path to the ring for a shot at a congressional rookie who Democrats in Texas and beyond saw as one of the GOP's most vulnerable - Rodriguez resurfaced as a potentially huge obstacle when he launched yet another comeback as a contender for one of the two congressional seats that he's won and lost since leaving the Legislature in the late 1990s.

So Gallego had to deal first with Rodriguez in a race that pitted Democratic sentimentalists and some grassroots loyalists against a party establishment that clearly favored the ex-district attorney who'd never lost a political race in stark contrast to a primary foe who's political career had been like a never-ending rollercoaster ride. The drain on time and money that the Rodriguez interruption caused appeared to knock Gallego off course - but he used it as a training ground and springboard for momentum that he managed to harness for the fall fight.

Both sides would have the heavy artillery that the national parties earmarked for the CD 23 race as one of the seats that Democrats thought they had the best chance of wrestling from the GOP on the congressional battlefield in 2012. But even though races for Congress tend to become battles at that point that are fought by armies as opposed to individual candidates, Gallego appeared to take full advantage of the resources that the national party made available to him without relinquishing control of the reins to his ultimate destiny. That's something that Rodriguez - despite a reputation as a dedicated public servant with unflappable partisan loyalty - had never been able to accomplish when the stakes became more important than who the candidates were and what they had to offer.

And the stakes were sky high in the CD 23 showdown at a time when the Democrats were just 25 seats short of the majority in the U.S. House that a Gallego victory could help them achieve. Super PACs unleashed torrents of cash for torpedo ads that targeted both of the major party contenders in a district that had been trending Democrat despite Canseco's wave win before a federal court revised it early this year in a way that appeared to give the incumbent a slight edge on paper. While Republicans had received only 48 percent of the statewide vote in the new version of CD 23 when Rodriguez defended it successfully in 2008, the GOP's statewide slates had captured 52 percent there two years later when Canseco claimed the seat.

Gallego knew he had to persuade voters that he would be a marked improvement over the current Republican representative and the Democrat who'd preceded him - and the best way to do that would be to get out and meet as many of them as humanly possible in a limited time period. People who would shake Gallego's hand and exchange a pleasantry or two would probably like the guy and vote for him unless they were hard-core Republicans who didn't split tickets. But face-to-face contact with voters is difficult in a district with 30 counties that covers almost 600 miles and takes a eight or nine hours to drive from one end to the other with minimal pit stops and Dairy Queen breaks.

So Gallego had to pick his spots selectively and judiciously to get maximum bang for the bucks in a race against an incumbent who was more heavily armed if not as experienced in the hand-shaking business. And while the easiest route would have been to let the national party come in and takeover, Gallego enlisted a couple of operatives who'd high-ranking staffers at the Texas Democratic Party as his chief strategists at the same time he welcomed a parade of celebrity Democrats from outside the state to stump for him on his behalf in the campaign's critical final stages. Gallego had Bill Clinton leading cheers for him at a rally in the Alamo City where San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich played an attention-grabbing prop on the stage in the background. U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer had appeared with Gallego earlier that week at an event aimed at drumming up support among the party's base in San Antonio.

While Canseco carried his home base with 51 percent of the vote in the portion of Bexar County in CD 23, it wasn't enough to make up for Gallego's strong showing in a section of El Paso County that had been shuffled into the district on the court map. Gallego nailed 79 percent of more than 14,000 votes that were cast in El Paso while winning easily in other counties along the Texas border with Mexico.

Thanks to the intervention from the national party bomb tossers, the rhetoric bubbled over the boiling point as Republicans branded Gallego as a radical environmentalist while Canseco was accused of being a deceptive business manipulator in the private sector before backing tax breaks for the rich as a public official at the expense of working families that live from paycheck to paycheck. But the tide in a battle that appeared to be the ultimate toss up on the eve of the election turned in Gallego's favor as he won the promotion from voters that he'd envisioned for more than a decade with slightly more than 50 percent of the vote while holding Canseco to under 46 percent.

Honorable Mention: Philip Cortez (HD 117 Democrat)

Best of the General Election Part 2 - Coming Soon


Wendy Davis
Most Valuable Campaign

Jason Villalba
Best Primary & General

Mary Ann Perez
Best Open Race

Pete Gallego
Best Challenger Campaign

Craig Eiland
Best Incumbent Campaign


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