Lessons from Senate District 26: Gringos Vote and the Democratic Base Does Not

Americans For Prosperity stands strong for new state Sen. José Menéndez
Americans For Prosperity stands strong for new state Sen. José Menéndez

How did Republican mega-donors end up winning a race in which only Democrats were running?

This week’s sad installment in an ongoing saga—the Travails of Texas Democrats—involves a runoff in Senate District 26, which covers much of San Antonio, between two Democratic state reps, José Menéndez and Trey Martinez Fischer. Last night, Menéndez won Leticia Van de Putte’s former seat in the Senate after a bitter and partisan campaign in which much of his support against the liberal Martinez Fischer came from Republicans. It wasn’t exactly an upset, but it ran contrary to the expectations of some statewide observers. (Yours truly included.)

As political scientist Mark P. Jones outlines here, Menéndez was one of the most conservative Democrats in the House last session, and Martinez Fischer was one of the most liberal. Martinez Fischer, or TMF as he’s colloquially known, won almost 44 percent in a special election in early January. Menéndez took 25 percent.

From one angle, it looked like Menéndez had a path to victory. Two other Republican candidates in the five-way race together took almost 28 percent of the vote. If Menéndez could keep his voting base intact and add all of the Republican voters from the first round, he’d win.

But TMF was a formidable opponent. He was a rising star in the party—or at least, he’d appointed himself one. He’d become known in the House for his skill in using the lower chamber’s rules to kill bills. He’s vocal, tough and smart, and he has the ambition to match. He’s the chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. He’s won plaudits and attention from the media.

TMF poured money into the Texas Democratic Party convention last summer, where he had an unusually high profile for a lowly state representative. His party, featuring the Austin-based Spazmatics, was one of the convention’s headlining events. He gave away loteria cards emblazoned with the faces of Texas politicos, which became popular items—the Abbott card depicted the governor with devil horns. And his speech to the convention was full of the kind of fire that makes Democrats feel competitive again, even if his more pointed barbs—he joked that “GOP” stood for gringos y otros pendejos—drew stern disapproval from some more polite observers, and later became a big focus of anti-TMF attack ads.

In his race, he was supported by all kinds of Democratic heavies. He had the financial support of Houston mega-donor Steve Mostyn’s network, the strong backing of San Antonio bigwigs like the Castro family, and the endorsement of his hometown paper, the San Antonio Express-News.

Menéndez, meanwhile, was a fine rep, but quiet. He served in the House for 14 years. He was on the corporate-minded, conservative wing of his party. He won a committee chairmanship from House Speaker Joe Straus. Last session, he authored bills to raise criminal penalties for petty crimes like graffiti, even though his colleagues, even some Republicans, were generally trying to do the opposite.

Leticia Van de Putte, who held the seat before she resigned to run for mayor of San Antonio, was no great liberal herself, but she regularly ran unopposed. This was a pretty Democratic district, so TMF, with his profile and money and support, would clench it, right? Austin journalists of all stripes were salivating at the notion of Martinez Fischer butting heads with Dan Patrick in the once-comatose Senate.

As it turns out, gringos y otros pendejos vote, and the Democratic base does not. TMF lost the early vote by 20 points, and stayed down all night, ultimately winning just under 41 percent of the vote. A whopping 6 percent of voters made it to the polls. Remarkably, not only did Menéndez expand his vote share to include (presumably) Republican voters, but TMF lost ground, slipping from 44 percent to 41 percent of the vote. In short, it was a drubbing.

Menéndez will probably be a fine senator, and his campaign team did a great job here. But it’s still a missed opportunity for Democrats. The tea party relentlessly primaries GOP senators in safe districts until they get the guys they want; they’ve succeeded in changing the face of the Legislature. Democrats have sometimes been successful at this. In 2013, Democrat Sylvia Garcia, backed by the same people who backed TMF, beat Carol Alvarado, a more conservative candidate who was backed by the same people who backed Menéndez, including Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

It’s probably safe to say to say that Menéndez won’t be the kind of fighter in the Senate that Democratic die-hards were hoping for. Menendez’s biggest donors include William Greehey, the CEO of Valero Energy, the irascible billionaire Red McCombs, and beer distributor John L. Nau. All have donated oceans of money to Republican candidates at the state and federal level. He was even effectively endorsed by the Texas branch of the Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity.

Meanwhile, Democratic base voters can’t seem to get out to the polls in non-presidential years unless someone is standing behind them with a cattle prod. Maybe they’ll try that next.

On Tuesday night, the state Democratic Party—and Battleground Texas—found themselves celebrating the election of a senator whose campaign was funded by Republicans and cheered by the political machine of the Koch brothers. Blue Texas is coming any day now.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 4:28 pm CST
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