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The blue wave Texas Democrats are hoping for never got rolling in State Senate District 19, where the staunchly blue district that includes parts of Bexar County went to Republican Pete Flores in September.
It was a stunning victory for the Texas GOP as Republicans look to stymie Democrats’ efforts to win several legislative seats in Bexar County. But will it serve as a bellwether for November’s midterm election, when some anticipate U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and anti-Trump sentiment could mobilize voters and buoy Democrats?
“Democrats, nationally and in Texas, have a lot of eggs in the Bexar County basket,” said Colin Strother, a Democratic political consultant who has run many South Texas campaigns. “There’s a lot at stake here.”
Strother voiced frustration over what he called complacency and lack of coordination among Texas Democrats that led to the defeat of Alpine’s Pete Gallego, an experienced elected official but a candidate who has now come off three consecutive losses in the political arena.
“As a test of Democratic mobilization and what kind of ground game we should expect from Democrats more broadly, it wasn’t a good sign,” said Joshua Blank, manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.
“My read of the result is that it probably says more about the difficulties that Beto is going to face statewide than it says about any particular local races,” Blank added. “For anybody watching San Antonio politics over the past few election cycles, there’s no doubt that what is going on in San Antonio politically is a little unusual in terms of … election outcomes that challenge [common] assumptions.”
As election season cranks up, local voters face decisions in U.S. Congressional districts 21 and 23 – the latter of which is a rare swing district in Texas – as well as in the State House of Representatives. The Bexar County District Attorney race is also up for grabs along with a host of judicial races, while Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is expected to cruise to re-election.
Locally, perhaps the most consequential vote, rests with a set of ballot propositions spearheaded by the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association and aimed at amending the City Charter.
In the background, the Bexar County Republican Party and Bexar County Democratic Party are each fighting internal fires. Both have to do with new administrations that took the helm earlier this year.
The local Republican Party Chair Cynthia Brehm has faced calls for her to resign in the wake of revelations about her husband’s sexual misconduct with children while he served in the military. Norman Brehm pleaded guilty – but did not serve out a sentence – to indecency with a child and making a false statement after successfully appealing on a statute of limitations claim.
Meanwhile, local Democrats have split into factions with former Party Chair Manuel Medina assembling a bloc of loyalists behind his agenda, which has often run counter to current Chair Monica Alcantara.
“Cynthia Brehm is a massive distraction,” local Republican strategist Tom Marks said. “I personally fall in line with – I think she should resign.”
The distraction, Marks said, has limited her ability to fundraise for her party’s candidates.
“Therefore, candidates up and down the ballot aren’t going to get a coordinated effort,” he said, citing past examples of direct mail pieces with a list of all Republican candidates. “All activities are going to fall on the candidates themselves.”
But as the Senate District 19 race demonstrated, the local mobilization efforts by Democrats have been similarly ineffectual, Strother said. And many local Democrats are dismayed by the county party’s decision – reportedly pushed by the pro-Medina faction – to endorse the charter amendment propositions.
“There’s a lot of concern among Democrats that if the approach isn’t changed between the special election and November, that we’re going to miss an opportunity in Bexar County,” he said.
Oct. 9 is the last day to register to vote in the Nov. 6 election, and early voting will run from Oct. 22 to Nov. 2. The last day to apply for a ballot by mail is Oct. 26.
Here are some of the most prominent midterm election races:
21st Congressional District
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio) announced his retirement in November of last year after 30 years of service in the House’s 21st district seat. That drew 18 candidates to the March primary election to determine whom Republicans would nominate to replace Smith.
Republicans ultimately tapped Chip Roy, who formerly served as Ted Cruz’s chief of staff, and entrepreneur and veteran Joseph Kopser claimed victory in the Democratic primary.
Strother said the 21st district – which stretches from Austin to San Antonio along I-35 and includes Hill Country cities Boerne, Fredericksburg, and Kerrville – has undergone a lot of demographic change over the years. Women, as well as voters in suburban and exurban areas, are starting to change their voting behavior because of the Trump effect, he said, and that could play out in the Roy vs. Kopser race.
“The Kopser race is exactly the kind of race you win in a blue wave,” Strother said. “On paper, he’s the type of candidate you need to win a district like this. He’s unassailable to many of the Republican knee-jerk attacks.”
“Anytime you have someone who could potentially have crossover appeal, there’s going to be some worry,” Marks said. “It’s a district that’s built for Republicans. But when you have a veteran small-business owner … it requires that much more work in this cycle.”
23rd Congressional District
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd’s 23rd district seat is the least secure Republican beachhead in the state. It’s a sprawling minority-majority district that runs along the Texas-Mexico border from West Texas to San Antonio has swung from red to blue and then back to red. Hurd won the seat in 2014 from the aforementioned Gallego and won re-election in a 2016 rematch with Gallego.
He faces former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones in what is expected to be a close race.
Marks is bullish on Hurd’s chances of earning a third term.
“I think Will has done a great job of being proactive about the needs of his district and constantly meeting and talking to them,” he said.
Money has been poured from throughout the country into the race, with Hurd receiving large donations from Republican financiers and Jones raising money from such national funding stalwarts as Emily’s List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“It’s going to come down to who has the better base turnout,” Strother said. “Gina’s going to need help dragging out as many people as possible to vote straight ticket.”
State House District 116
Trey Martinez Fischer is expected to return to the state Capitol, where he served this Northwest San Antonio district as a representative from 2000 to 2016, when he made an unsuccessful bid for the State Senate. Fischer earned his party’s nomination by defeating Diana Arevalo in March and will face Republican Fernando Padron in November.
State House District 118
Another battleground race, the 118th district in the Texas House, features Republican John Lujan, who served less than a full term in the seat after winning a special election in March 2016 but lost that November to Democrat Thomas Uresti. In the March primary, voters ousted Uresti, who may have fallen victim to blowback from brother Carlos Uresti’s criminal convictions, so Lujan will face the lesser-known Leo Pacheco.
The district includes much of San Antonio’s South Side and wraps around east Bexar County toward Schertz.
“You’ve got a former half-term representative and a newbie,” Marks said of Lujan and Pacheco. “Obviously, Pacheco did a lot of work in order to knock off his opponent in the primary. He’s going to have name ID, but Lujan also has name ID. Everything is going to come down to the work they put in.”
State House District 121
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First-time Democratic candidate Celina Montoya, a businesswoman, will look to stage an upset to claim the seat long held by State House Speaker Joe Straus, who is retiring. Her Republican opponent, Steve Allison, is a business attorney who is touting Straus’ endorsement to capture votes in a conservative but moderate-leaning stronghold in North San Antonio. The 121st district stretches north from Alamo Heights to Loop 1604 and Bulverde Road.
“It’s within a constituency – urban/exurban – that nationally we’re seeing [people] change their behavior,” Strother said. “This is the district where even Republicans are moderate. They continued to choose Straus over more extreme alternatives. I think [Montoya’s] the perfect Democratic candidate for this district. … It isn’t one of those that we should necessarily win, but she’s making it look like we have a chance at it.”
State House District 122
State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) will seek re-election to the 122nd House district, located in northern Bexar County. A small-business owner, Larson served as San Antonio City Councilman in the 1990s and as Bexar County Commissioner from the late ’90s to the late 2000s. His opponent, Democrat Claire Barnett, is an educator who moved to San Antonio four years ago.
In the last legislative session, Larson helped reduce the license-to-carry fee from $140 to $40 with an eye toward eliminating it altogether. Barnett lists public health and improving access to affordable care as her top priorities.
Bexar County District Attorney
In one of the most high-profile local races of the Democratic primary, Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood was defeated decisively by local attorney Joe Gonzales, whose platform includes more progressive ideals such as bail reform and a rehabilitative approach to nonviolent offenders. LaHood has since renounced the Democratic Party, saying last month that it had become too “leftist.”
Now Gonzales, whose path to victory was paved with the help of a $1 million contribution from billionaire political donor and businessman George Soros, will face Republican Tylden Shaeffer, who appears to be building a sizable war chest of his own, according to Strother.
“Tylden Shaeffer had a fundraiser a few weeks ago that was the most comprehensive list of the donor community in San Antonio that I’ve seen in 18 years of working there,” said Strother, who managed LaHood’s campaign. “… It should be very unsettling to Democrats that we could lose that seat.”