By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006
SAN ANTONIO, Dec. 10 -- Almost everywhere nationwide, the midterm elections are but a distant memory, supplanted by Christmas shopping and holiday parties. But here, candidates are still battling to determine the makeup of the House and the fate of Texas's first Hispanic Republican elected to Congress.
The election for the state's 23rd Congressional District -- the largest in the country, with 52,621 square miles and 20 counties -- is what GOP and Democratic strategists are calling a "tossup" under new boundaries ordered this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court. Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla, seeking an eighth term, and Democrat Ciro Rodriguez, a former congressman, are in a runoff set for Tuesday.
The short campaign began with Rodriguez, 60, challenging Bonilla, 52, to defend his support of Bush administration policies and the war in Iraq mano a mano. Both agreed to two debates sponsored by civic groups, but Rodriguez canceled, citing scheduling conflicts. Rodriguez then challenged Bonilla to a bilingual debate, in Spanish and English. Bonilla didn't bite, later calling the request "a stunt."
Instead, the candidates have attacked each other's patriotism and posture on terrorism in television ads, news conferences and "robo-calls."
Rodriguez accused Bonilla of voting to cut veterans' benefits and to deny health-care coverage for National Guardsmen returning from Iraq. Bonilla countered by saying that Rodriguez showed "dangerous judgment" in Congress by opposing a law that allowed secret evidence to be used in immigration proceedings against suspected terrorists and by accepting a $250 contribution from a man later convicted of conducting illegal business transactions with Libya. The donation was made in 1998, years before the man was convicted, Rodriguez said.
The Supreme Court ordered the boundaries of the 23rd District redrawn after determining that the old map -- created under a 2003 redistricting by the Texas Legislature but orchestrated by then-House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) -- discriminated against Latino voters and did not comply with the Voting Rights Act. The new district is now more Hispanic (61 percent as opposed to about 50) and less Republican (54 percent instead of 62).
Because the new map was not finalized until August, five months after the state's primary election, a special election was held Nov. 7. State election law required a runoff if no candidate broke 50 percent. Bonilla won 48.6 percent of the vote; Rodriguez led a field of six Democrats with 19.9 percent.
Buoyed by the Democrats' midterm election wins and banking on the 23rd District's new demographics and Bonilla's weakness among Hispanics -- he won only 8 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2002 before the 2003 redistricting replaced 100,000 Hispanics with white voters -- national Democrats have infused the race with staff support and media buys. Former president Bill Clinton campaigned for Rodriguez on Sunday in San Antonio while Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) stumped with Bonilla in nearby Hondo.
Since Nov. 7, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent almost $900,000, more than two-thirds of it toward television and direct-mail advertising, for the cash-strapped Rodriguez campaign to counter Bonilla's runoff war chest of $1.6 million.
"We're committed to seeing Ciro cross the finish line to victory," said Adrienne Elrod, a spokeswoman for the DCCC. "This is a very competitive race."
State Democrats are running an aggressive Spanish-language media campaign and have raised more than $100,000 to beef up voter-turnout efforts.
"Let's give the GOP one more surprise by taking out another Tom DeLay Republican," wrote Texas Democratic Chairman Boyd L. Richie in a letter to party activists.
Bonilla said he is not concerned. He emphasizes he has run and won previously in 19 of the 20 counties that comprise the new district and that much of the area, which stretches from San Antonio 700 miles west to El Paso County, is largely conservative. Bonilla was endorsed by the San Antonio Express-News, which cited his seniority and his seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
Bonilla has focused his campaign on friendly audiences, such as at a recent high school football playoff game in San Antonio's Alamodome. The team from Hondo, a Bonilla stronghold in Republican-leaning Medina County, played and won, and Bonilla took advantage of halftime to work some of the crowd, hot dog and soda in hand. "Runoffs are all about getting your people out one more time. It's not a time to convert voters," Bonilla said.
The Supreme Court added to the district the heavily Democratic south side of San Antonio, which Rodriguez represented until he lost his seat after the 2003 redistricting. He has focused efforts on meeting voters in the sprawling district, espousing support for Democratic positions on raising the minimum wage, universal health care and a cheaper Medicare prescription plan.
"We saw in November that people have had enough, and Bonilla has been part of the leadership supporting the [Bush] administration on Iraq and other issues," Rodriguez said following a recent neighborhood forum in northwest San Antonio.