The Nine Lives of Ciro Rodriguez

Democrat tries another comeback in closely watched congressional race


Dave Mann

It’s run-off day in Texas, and the Republican race for U.S. Senate between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst is getting all the headlines in Texas. But there’s another federal race today that could have a greater impact on the balance of power in Washington.

Many state and national Democrats are closely watching the Democratic runoff in Congressional District 23 between the unsinkable Ciro Rodriguez and the party favorite, state Rep. Pete Gallego. The winner will take on vulnerable GOP incumbent Quico Canseco of San Antonio. Democrats would very much like to win back the district, which stretches from San Antonio into West Texas—a victory that could be essential if they want to recapture the U.S. House.

Much of the party establishment is apparently rooting for Gallego because the state rep from Alpine has raised more money, and many observers think he has a better chance of defeating Canseco in the fall.

But few politicians are as pesky and dogged as Rodriguez. Ciro has represented San Antonio in Congress for two separate stints, and twice lost his seat. He was first defeated in 2004 in a Democratic primary by Henry Cuellar. He lost again to Cuellar in a primary rematch. But he earned a reprieve later that year when federal courts redrew the congressional districts. Ciro filed against, and later defeated, Henry Bonilla in CD 23. That was remarkable comeback No. 1.

In 2010, Rodriguez was unseated yet again by Canseco in an upset win for the Republican. After that kind of loss—Ciro’s third defeat in six years—most politicians would have called it a career.

But Rodriguez doesn’t quit. He surprised some Democrats by finishing ahead of Gallego in the May 29 primary. Despite being outspent and not being the party’s preferred candidate, Rodriguez received 46 percent to Gallego’s 41 percent (another candidate finished a distant third).

Rodriguez benefits from a loyal, motivated base in San Antonio. He pummeled Gallego in Bexar County on primary night, winning 56 percent of the vote—double Gallego’s total. In fact, nearly a fifth of all Rodriguez’s votes came from Bexar County.

While he’s popular in West Texas, Gallego will have to perform better in San Antonio if he’s going to win the runoff tonight. Gaining the endorsement of popular San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro certainly helped, and Gallego had the money to build support in the San Antonio market. He had raised and spent more than $844,000, according to the latest federal filings on July11, nearly three times Rodriguez’s total (Gallego’s biggest donors were beer distributors and trial lawyers).

But Rodriguez has been outspent in previous races and still won. “He confounds some Democrats with how he’s able to do this without spending or raising a lot,” said Jessica Taylor, with the D.C.-based Rothenberg Political Report, told the Dallas Morning News. Ciro also picked up his own big-name endorsement on Tuesday when Bill Clinton announced his last-minute support.

This seat will likely be Texas’ most competitive congressional election this fall. Tonight we’ll find out if the Democratic challenger in November will be many Democrats’ preferred choice or if Rodriguez will continue another improbably comeback.