Courtesy of John Lujan for State Rep 118 via Facebook

Special Election Loss in San Antonio Could Spell Trouble for Dems in the Midterms

In a hotly contested special election contest, Republicans trump Democrats on their home turf—securing a seat in a predominantly Hispanic state House district that could be hard to wrest back in 2022.

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With another special election for an open Democratic seat in San Antonio came another loss for Democrats. In the runoff for the 118th Texas House district, Republican John Lujan eked out an upset win against Democrat Frank Ramirez by just 286 votes. 

While a single Texas House seat isn’t incredibly significant on its own, the loss of a seat in a strong Democratic and predominantly Latino district after the GOP spent the better part of a year ramming through extreme legislation is just the latest demoralizing blow for the state’s embattled minority party. A good candidate, plenty of money and resources, and an uptick in turnout still weren’t enough for Democrats to fend off Republicans’ aggressive push on their home turf. That’s a potentially ominous sign of trouble ahead for a party that is trying to hold the line in the 2022 midterms against a GOP down-ballot offensive with freshly gerrymandered maps.

The battle for the seat on the South Side of San Antonio turned into a high-stakes affair the moment that incumbent Rep. Leo Pacheco resigned in August. Republicans sought to flip the seat to show that the inroads their party made in 2020 with Latino voters in the blue strongholds of South Texas weren’t just a Trump-fueled fluke, and that they’d make further gains in the midterms. 

For Democrats, the race was the first chance to make the case at the ballot box against the raft of radical laws that GOP lawmakers have passed over a series of marathon legislative sessions this year, casting Lujan as a stand-in for Governor Greg Abbott and his party’s reactionary extremism. 

President Joe Biden carried the district over Donald Trump by 14 percentage points in 2020. But in the September special election primary for the open seat, the Republican and Democratic candidates basically ran even in total partisan votes—a sign that the seat was up for grabs in the notoriously unpredictable runoffs. Democrats tried hard to avoid a repeat of September 2019, when former Congressman Pete Gallego bungled a special election runoff for a state Senate seat centered in San Antonio that Democrats had held for 139 years. Gallego and the fragmented Bexar County Democratic Party apparatus failed to mobilize their voters in a low-turnout affair, while Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Texas Republicans poured big money and resources into the race. 

This time around, Democrats and their allied groups took the race seriously as legislators and statewide candidates flocked to San Antonio to help rally the base for Ramirez, a former legislative and city council staffer. The Texas Trial Lawyers Association and a national Democratic PAC each pumped in $20,000 to the cause, while the Texas Organizing Project spent $80,000 knocking on doors for Ramirez. The effort to rally the base and amp up turnout worked as Ramirez pulled in roughly 2,000 more votes than the total Democratic vote in the primary.

But that still wasn’t enough to overcome Lujan and the Republicans’ Bexar County push. 

Lujan, who briefly held the 118th district after winning a special election in 2016, scraped together a win with just under 300 votes. He was aided by heavy financial support from the party’s top leaders, including Governor Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan, as well as a number of top GOP-aligned PACs.

Republicans in Texas and nationally have predictably touted the Lujan upset as proof positive that South Texas is primed for a red wave in 2022. 

“This result is a rebuke of the Texas Democrats’ continued embrace of Biden’s radical policies and testament to the growing strength of the Republican Party in South Texas. His well-fought victory forecasts a bright future ahead for Republicans in 2022,” the Republican National Committee said in a statement. 

“We didn’t make it over the line tonight. But we gave Texas Republicans a run for their money at every single step,” Ramirez said in a statement. 

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa pinned the blame on Republicans who “used national big donor money to outspend our grassroots movement two to one.” He also reiterated claims that Lujan had received inside information about the runoff date before Abbott made it public.

Abbott didn’t announce the date of the runoff until the week before early voting started, which meant that the special election race wasn’t included on the same ballot as the constitutional amendments that Texans also voted on Tuesday. That created an unprecedented and inconvenient ballot mess in which San Antonio voters had to go through two separate lines and cast two separate ballots for the constitutional amendments and the special election. 

With the Legislature now out of session, it’s unlikely that Lujan will even cast a vote before facing reelection in 2022. Unlike 2016, Lujan has a better chance at holding onto the seat this time. Under the new GOP-drawn district maps, the redrawn 118th district would have been carried by Biden by a much narrower margin. 

In what will likely be a difficult midterm cycle for Democrats in Texas and across the country, that means the party will have an expensive uphill fight in 2022 if they want to wrest back a seat they had no business losing in the first place.