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In Gallego-Canseco Race, Big Money in the Big Bend

Key Texas congressional race attracts $7 million from outside groups.
by Published on
Bill Clinton and Pete Gallego
PHOTO SOURCE: www.facebook.com/pete.gallego.9
Bill Clinton and Pete Gallego.

By Nov. 6, both political parties and their allies will have poured more than $1 billion into campaigns for just a handful of seats in Congress. One of the most hotly contested races—and one of the costliest—is Texas’ 23rd district, where Democrat Pete Gallego is challenging Republican incumbent Francisco “Quico” Canseco. And it’s getting nasty. A total of $10 million has been spent so far, about $660 per registered voter, making this congressional race one of the most expensive races per capita in the nation.

That’s a lot of cash for a sparsely populated congressional district that spans two time zones, from South San Antonio to El Paso County. The big spending is not just because the district will help determine who controls the U.S. House, but also because both parties see the majority Hispanic district as a bellwether that signals which party can best appeal to the growing number of Latino voters. Two years  ago, Republicans broke through when Canseco, from San Antonio, rode the tea party wave to victory, ousting Democrat Ciro Rodriguez by five points. For the first time, the GOP had seven Hispanic Republicans in Congress, which was heralded as a sign that Republicans were finally winning over Latinos.

Now Democrats hope to reclaim the district. Gallego, an attorney and former Democratic state representative from Alpine, has set out to prove that Canseco’s win in 2010 was an aberration in an otherwise Democratic-leaning district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee PAC has spent more than $1.7 million backing Gallego and flew former President Bill Clinton into San Antonio to stump on his behalf. The National Congressional Republican Committee has spent more than $1.6 million supporting Canseco, and the GOP gave the relatively unknown congressman a coveted speaking slot at the convention over the summer.

But the big money in this race is coming from special interests. Outside groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the National Rifle Association have already spent more than $7 million on the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The outside PAC and super PAC money poured into a blitz of TV ads, mailers and radio spots has given the race a nasty tone. San Antonio, which has the highest concentration of voters in the district, is ground zero for the daily attacks by either side. In his ads, Canseco leans heavily on the term “radical,” claiming that Gallego is backed by “radical environmental groups” and is pro-abortion. He’s also not afraid to use Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary to get himself elected. Both candidates are Catholic and campaigning in a predominantly Catholic district. Recently, Canseco’s campaign sent out Spanish language mailers with a photo of a teen crying next to a doctor’s exam chair draped in Catholic rosaries that says in Spanish “Pete Gallego supports abortion 100 percent.”

Canseco is benefiting from more than $1 million worth of negative ads from a new super PAC called the Congressional Leadership Fund. The latest ad, titled “Hunting,” features an animated rifle shooting down jobs and tax cuts for Texas’s oil and gas industry. The super PACs’ top donors include Chevron Corp., Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands casino, homebuilder tycoon Bob Perry and reality show millionaire Donald Trump, according to the Center for Responsive
Politics.

Groups supporting Gallego have countered with TV ads by the House Majority PAC and League of Conservation Voters Super PAC, which are spending just under $1 million on media buys. The latest ad claims Canseco was sued by small business clients for deception, and while in Congress he protected corporate tax breaks so jobs could be shipped off shore. Some of the top donors to the super PACs are the Las Vegas workers union, Houston trial layer Amber Mostyn and Fred Eychaner, a Chicago-based media baron and top donor to President Barack Obama.

“There is no doubt in my mind that if every single person in Texas who was eligible to vote registered and voted, this would be a Democratic state,” former President Bill Clinton told a packed auditorium recently during a rally in San Antonio to support Gallego’s campaign. But if Latinos don’t show up at the polls Tuesday, the race could be a narrow victory for Canseco and the Republicans.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.