Texas Republicans Put Their Money Where The South Is

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J.M. Lozano (right) with Gov. Rick Perry.
J.M. Lozano (right) with Gov. Rick Perry.

The race between Democrat-turned-Republican state Rep. J.M. Lozano and former state Rep. Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles in House District 43 should make for an interesting case study of whether the Democrats have lost their stronghold in South Texas.

The pair are running in a district that looks quite different than it did when Lozano first got elected in 2010.

Until the recent redistricting, Kleberg County, where both Lozano and Gonzalez live, shared a district with the very Democratic Willacy and Cameron counties in the Rio Grande Valley (along with much-smaller Jim Hogg, Brooks and Kenedy counties.) Those southern counties were sliced off and Kleberg is now paired with three somewhat conservative, rural counties surrounding Corpus Christi—a shift that led the freshman Lozano to abruptly change parties in March.

The counties that make up the “new” District 43—Bee, Jim Wells, Kleberg and San Patricio— generally vote for Republicans at the top of the ballot and lean Democratic down-ballot.

Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles
Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles

But this election, Republicans are pouring tons of funds into the district while Dems are arguing that Hispanic Republicans can’t win in South Texas. The Republican honchos have gone all-in for Lozano. Both Governor Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott have endorsed and stumped for Lozano. Ditto for former political rival, Will Vaden, who finished third in the May primary.

With Hispanics set to become the majority in this state, Republicans need a Hispanic poster child in the Texas Legislature and it’s clear from the $860,000 in fundraising reported from Lozano’s camp since the first of the year that the Texas GOP has made Lozano a special project. After all, most of the other Hispanic Republicans elected in 2010 have dropped out or are in tough re-election battles of their own.

Former state Rep. Aaron Peña, from Hidalgo County, who switched parties after winning in 2010, chose not to run again after a San Antonio court pushed him into a neighboring, heavily-Democratic district.

State Rep. Jose Aliseda of Beeville chose not to seek re-election because he got paired with Lozano in the same district. He’s running for Bee County DA instead. State Rep. Raul Torres of Corpus Christi saw his Nueces County district disappear in the Republican-led redistricting process, so he decided to challenge state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, a Democrat, in a long-shot bid for that Senate seat.

And then there are Republicans Connie Scott in HD-34 (Corpus Christi), Dee Margo in HD-78 (El Paso) and John Garza in HD-117 (San Antonio) trying to defend the seats they won in 2010, all of which had previously been held by Hispanic Democrats.

“I think that Republicans have taken a look at these seats and made calculated decisions that J.M. is their South Texas/Latino firewall,” says South Texas Democratic consultant Roger Garza. “Dee Margo and Connie Scott are in the races of their lives and could lose for the second time to their opponents. John Garza is locked in a tight race in San Antonio where the margin could be decided by just a few hundred votes. And since Republicans have invested so much in J.M.—already getting him out of a contested primary and runoff—they can’t make their initial investment turn out to be bad money.”

While the extra dollars translate to more commercial time on local airwaves, Garza reiterates that it’s still a Dem’s game on the lower part of the ballot. “You see a huge Republican drop off when you get to the State Supreme Court races,” Garza says. “1300 more people voted for Texas Supreme Court Dems than voted for Obama in the last election.”

And though Lozano has far outspent Garza (she’s raised $176,000 since July compared to Lozano’s $445,000 in roughly that same period), Garza claims that she has more people on the ground, walking neighborhoods.

Both sides, Republican and Democrat, have made clear that this race has symbolic importance. For the GOP, it’s about whether the conservative juggernaut can make inroads with Latinos and maintain the party’s grip on power. For Democrats, it’s about whether they can continue to appeal to the Hispanic community (or communities) on the usual terms. A loss would be demoralizing for Democrats, who count on Hispanic demographic growth to power them back into competitive statewide races. Reading too much into this one House race is probably a mistake. But listen closely to how the losing side tries to spin things in the days and weeks to come. It may become a recurring excuse.

Cindy Casares is a columnist for the Texas Observer. She is also the founding Editor of Guanabee Media, an English-language, pop culture blog network about Latinos established in 2007. She has a Master's in Mass Communications from Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter. Prior to her career in journalism, she spent ten years in New York City as an advertising copywriter. During her undergraduate career at the University of Texas she served under Governor Ann Richards as a Senate Messenger during the 72nd Texas Legislature.