Living in a county that’s dominated by Democrats, in a state controlled by Republicans and led nationally by two parties at war with each other, Bexar County voters will have plenty of options — seven key races among them — to air their frustrations with the status quo this November.
While the high-profile race between Gov. Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke is largely being fought in rural territory, both Republicans and Democrats have reasons to be excited about their opportunities here this November.
Headed into the first midterm of President Joe Biden’s administration, Republicans hope to take advantage of his grim approval ratings to make gains in some territory that’s traditionally been blue. They’ve also made inroads with people of color in recent years.
“The [Rio Grande] Valley is the biggest battleground [in the state], and Bexar County is probably second,” said Republican strategist Craig Murphy, whose firm Murphy Nasica works with county judge hopeful Trish DeBerry, district attorney candidate Marc LaHood and state Rep. John Lujan in Texas House District 118.
While white, college-educated women and voters with higher incomes are trending away from the party, he said, “all minority groups feel more Republican.”
“I don’t see a lot of movement at the county level in any Texas major counties except Bexar,” he added.
Abbott carried Bexar County with just under 50% of the vote in his 2014 race against Democrat Wendy Davis. He lost it to Democrat Lupe Valdez in 2018, taking 46% of the vote. So far, there’s been little public polling on his standing in the county this election season.
Democrats say backlash against the governor, along with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and a school shooting in Uvalde that’s renewed calls for gun safety measures have all made this a good year for their candidates. Bexar County Commissioners are pushing to expand the number of voting locations this November to capitalize on growing enthusiasm among their voters.
“At the beginning of the summer, I think there was a general mood that Democrats up and down the ballot were not going to have a good midterm season. That’s absolutely been flipped,” said Democrat Frank Ramirez, who is in a rematch with Lujan for the seat he narrowly lost in last year’s special election.
Bexar County Judge
Democrat and former family court judge Peter Sakai will face DeBerry, a former Pct. 3 county commissioner, in the race to replace retiring Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. While the race has drawn plenty of interest from the business community, political watchers from both parties say its Sakai’s race to lose.
DeBerry, who filed minutes before the deadline, has been running an aggressive campaign focused on firing up loyal Republicans. In recent weeks, she’s rallied with conservatives at the city’s public budget hearings and run ads touting her support in the primary from the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County. But DeBerry has also been adamant she doesn’t want to see former President Donald Trump run for office again and backed out of attending the recent Alamo City Freedom Fest when she learned some his allies had been added to the lineup, she said.
“There’s no way I could be there,” DeBerry said. “Many of those people don’t like me,” and “it would be somewhat disingenuous to stand up there and say ‘Hey I’m pro Trump getting back into office.”
Sakai, meanwhile, has the support of Wolff and all of the Democrats on the Commissioners Court, who will fundraise for him this fall. He’s been campaigning on a plan to move backlogged cases through the court system more quickly and to create a public internet utility.
The two campaigns have traded barbs over debates and donors, but their first major debate with the Real Estate Council of San Antonio was postponed last week after Sakai contracted Covid-19. Libertarian candidate Edgar Coyle will also be on the ballot.
Bexar County District Attorney
Incumbent Democrat Joe Gonzales is finishing his first term and defending his cite-and-release policy amid complaints about rising crime. He faces a challenge from Republican Marc LaHood, brother of Nico LaHood, whom Gonzales defeated in the 2018 Democratic primary.
Gonzales ran and won on the idea of keeping people who are suspected of low-level misdemeanors from being arrested. While the policy is still popular among progressives, other district attorneys across the country have faced backlash for similar policies, which residents said led to an uptick in crime.
“Public safety is important; being able to go to work without being robbed or harassed,” LaHood told residents at a Hot Wells Mission Reach Neighborhood Association meeting last week. Of the current leadership in the DA’s office, he said, they’re “scared to do and say what needs to be done.”
LaHood attended and addressed the July rally that DeBerry passed on.
A poll conducted at the end of August for the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association of Bexar County ranked “crime” and “safety” as top issues headed into the midterms.
Gonzales says he’s been focusing his resources on stopping violent crime at a time when the isolation from the pandemic, growing political unrest across the country and increased gun ownership have caused it to spike.
“All these losses, these stressors and limitations created the perfect storm for an increase in gun violence,” he told members of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee last month.
Gonzales continues to raise big money off of the popularity of his criminal justice reform ideas, even as voters have rebuked district attorneys with similar plans in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Bexar County Commissioner Precinct 3
DeBerry’s decision to run for county judge opened up a wild race to replace her in Precinct 3. The district was redrawn to favor Republicans after DeBerry won it with 55% of the vote in 2020.
Grant Moody emerged from a crowded field of Republicans who sought the nomination from the party’s precinct chairs. Moody will continue his job as director of innovation and low carbon fuels at Valero Energy Corporation throughout the fall. His campaign recently set up shop in Castle Hills.
Moody will face Democrat Susan Korbel, a party activist who has been working for several cycles to expand Democrats’ reach into a part of the county that has typically supported Republicans. She also owns her own public opinion firm.
Texas House District 118
Lujan faces a rematch against Ramirez, a former staffer in the Texas Legislature and city planner who worked for council members Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) and Ana Sandoval (D7). Lujan flipped the seat for his party in a special election that was determined by fewer than 12,000 voters in November.
The district has since been redrawn more favorably for Republicans, though it remains one of the most competitive legislative seats in the state.
House Speaker Dade Phelan and the Republican State Leadership Committee are funding TV ads to protect Lujan, while the Texas AFL-CIO and American Federation of Teachers are helping Ramirez.
On Friday, Ramirez said changes made during redistricting had been a “double-edged sword,” cutting out a part of the population that’s been shifting toward Republicans while adding some that’s become more friendly to Democrats.
“By losing a lot of our Latino base, we’ve gained a lot of middle-class working families in the northeast side of town, specifically in Precinct 3,” said Ramirez. “[They] may have voted Republican at some point in their life, but the environment that they’re currently in allows them to vote for a Democrat.”
Texas House District 121
Republican Rep. Steve Allison, a former Alamo Heights ISD board president, has represented the district since 2018, when he succeeded former Republican House Speaker Joe Straus. He faces a challenge this year from Democrat Becca DeFelice, who has been endorsed by the Texas AFT, Planned Parenthood and Annie’s List, a progressive group that helps elect women candidates.
Allison has run in tough races in the past, but Democrats are optimistic his suburban, highly educated district is made up of the type of voters that have been turning away from the Republican Party.
In a nod to that dynamic, Allison has sought to distance himself from fellow Republicans in the Legislature. At a recent meeting of the San Antonio City Council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, Allison said he hoped his colleagues would stop prioritizing social issues and refocus their attention on topics like funding school safety measures.
“There are some issues that just don’t need to be legislated and I’m afraid we’ve gone down that path,” Allison said.
DeFelice is active in the gun violence prevention group Moms Demand Action and finished second in the Democratic primary in 2020 to Celina Montoya, who was defeated by Allison with roughly 53% of the vote.
“I just think a lot of [voters] didn’t see that the last [legislative] session would end up being as extreme as it was,” said DeFelice, who pointed to the state’s new restrictions on abortion as an example. “That was something that we knew would not sit well with this district.”
Texas House District 122
Former Bexar County Republican Chair Mark Dorazio emerged from a crowded primary as his party’s nominee to replace Rep. Lyle Larson, who is retiring. Dorazio, who had the help of well-heeled conservative groups, defeated former San Antonio Councilwoman Elisa Chan, who was endorsed by Speaker Phelan, in an expensive runoff.
Dorazio’s campaign is confident the district’s representation will shift right when he replaces Larson, a moderate Republican. Dorazio’s biggest legacy as party chair included leading the effort to censure Straus — a move the former speaker’s allies have not forgotten.
Phelan’s campaign said in a statement that he will support all of the Republican House candidates in Bexar County this fall.
Dorazio first has to get past Democrat Angi Aramburu, who is running a low-key campaign aimed at picking up the support of moderate Republicans. Aramburu owns her own fitness company and considers herself “pro-Second Amendment.”
“The whole reason I’m running is because I get so frustrated seeing [lawmakers] focus on these social issues at the state level, like the bathroom bill. … That just don’t matter to a majority of constituents,” said Aramburu. “We have huge issues in this state, like the underfunding of public schools” and “making property taxes more fair.”
The race also includes Libertarian candidate Stephanie Berlin, whom Dorazio sued unsuccessfully to keep off the ballot.
Libertarian Party of Texas Chair Whitney Bilyeu said Republicans like Dorazio who forge policy ideals around their faith have driven voters away from the Republican Party all across the state.
“Whether it is the abortion issue or the drug issue or personal relationships, they’re moving away from putting personal liberties at the forefront and minimizing the role of government,” said Bilyeu.
Texas House District 124
Democrat Josey Garcia is heavily favored to replace Rep. Ina Minjarez, who chose not to seek reelection to run for county judge, which was unsuccessful. Garcia is up against Republican Johnny Arredondo, who ran unsuccessfully against Minjarez for the seat in 2018, and against Rocha Garcia for City Council District 4 in 2019.
Garcia is a retired U.S. Air Force veteran and liberal activist who lobbied the Republican-led Legislature for police reforms last session and took the stage to advocate for abortion rights at a rally with anti-abortion Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar earlier this year.
If she makes it to the Republican-controlled Legislature, however, Garcia says she wants to focus on issues that she hopes can find bipartisan support, such as reforming the foster care system. Garcia was in and out of foster care throughout her youth.
“We’ve experienced a lot of bipartisan bickering and fighting and I really want to be somebody who can get past that,” Garcia said in an interview Friday.
Arredondo is retired from his career in retail but continues to referee NCAA basketball games. He said policing is the issue that most separates the two candidates.
“I think the most glaring thing in the race is that you have two completely opposite ideologies running,” said Arredondo. “I have always been a supporter of police, first responders and … the military.”