Democratic former Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez upset Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla in a House runoff election Tuesday in southwestern Texas’ 23rd District, pushing the Democrats’ net gain to 30 House seats and concluding Campaign 2006 with one final stunning come-from-behind victory for the new House majority party.
Rodriguez, who served in the House from 1997 to 2005 in an adjacent district, scored a surprisingly strong 55 percent of the vote with 97 percent of precincts reporting (results). Bonilla, who was seeking an eighth term, had 45 percent of the vote. Bonilla fell well short of the nearly 49 percent he received in the Nov. 7 “blanket primary” that set the matchup for Tuesday’s runoff.
Turnout for the runoff — the result of a court-ordered redistricting that reconfigured the normal election process in the district — was low.
This was in part because the Nov. 7 elections across the nation had already given the Democrats a decisive majority in their successful campaign to end a dozen years of Republican dominance in the House.
In fact, one of Rodriguez’ biggest added advantages in the runoff campaign was that he could boast of being a member of the House majority if he were to be elected — something he could not definitively claim before the primary, which coincided with the national Election Day.
Turnout also likely was affected by the fact that the runoff, a rare event in Texas politics, was held less than two weeks before Christmas.
Rodriguez’ victory added insult to injury for Republicans, who suffered their worst election losses since the Watergate era election of 1974.
The result also marked a stunning comeback for Rodriguez, a liberal who will be returning to the House despite two primary election losses in the past three years that raised questions about his viability as a candidate.
In March 2004, Rodriguez was unseated in the adjacent 28th District by Democrat Henry Cuellar. Then this March, Cuellar defeated Rodriguez decisively in a primary rematch.
This likely will result in an unusually awkward relationship between these neighboring Democrats. Cuellar, whose 28th District lines were slightly altered because of changes made to the 23rd District, won a second House term on Nov. 7.
Rodriguez was given a second chance to run this year when the Supreme Court ruled in June that the 23rd District violated the provisions of the Voting Rights Act by hindering the ability of the district’s Hispanic voters to elect a candidate of their choosing.
The Republican-controlled Texas legislature had redrawn the 23rd to strengthen Bonilla’s political security prior to the 2004 election, as part of a sweeping and controversial mid-decade redistricting that netted the GOP five seats in that year’s House elections. But the court this year invalidated the 23rd District map as unconstitutional because its Hispanic voting-age population (VAP) — 51 percent of the district’s total — was deemed insufficient to protect the voting rights of that constituency.
A federal court, acting under the Supreme Court’s ruling, in August redrew the 23rd to have a Hispanic VAP of 61 percent — mainly by attaching the heavily Hispanic south side of San Antonio, which is Rodriguez’s base.
The demographic changes had the effect of decidedly weakening the Republican lean of the 23rd District, thus making Bonilla much more vulnerable to defeat. Even though Bonilla is one of a small handful of Hispanic Republicans in Congress and its only Mexican-American Republican, his conservative views and voting record garner him much more support from white non-Hispanic voters, or “Anglos,” than from Hispanics, who here, as in most places, have strongly Democratic tendencies.
Texas Democratic Party chairman Boyd Richie, in a statement Tuesday night, trumpeted this year’s redistricting as setting the stage for Rodriguez’ ouster of Bonilla.“I am glad to say that today, the Hispanic community was given an opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice, and they made good on that opportunity by putting their faith in Ciro Rodriguez,” Richie said.
“Voters sent a message in November and they sent another one tonight, that change is coming to Washington,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois said in a statement.
Despite the alterations to the district, Rodriguez had to overcome several advantages with which Bonilla entered the abbreviated contest — especially the Republican’s long incumbency and strong name recognition across the 23rd District. Of the nearly 652,000 residents in the reconfigured 23rd, 63 percent came from Bonilla’s old 23rd District and 37 percent from the 28th District Rodriguez once represented.
Bonilla also had a huge fundraising advantage over Rodriguez. The DCCC, however, narrowed the gap somewhat by spending at least $900,000 on an “independent expenditure” campaign to attack Bonilla and promote Rodriguez.
The omen that Rodriguez might pull off the runoff win came in the the Nov. 7 “blanket” primary — ordered after the federal court redrew the 23rd and four other districts in August — in which Bonilla, Rodriguez, five other Democrats and an independent ran on a single ballot. Bonilla took 48.6 percent of the vote in that balloting, falling short of the majority vote needed for an outright victory and forcing him into a runoff with Rodriguez, who finished second with 22 percent.
Rodriguez’s win probably will be brandished by political liberals as evidence that they can prevail in partisan battleground districts. Rodriguez voted against authorizing military operations in Iraq; in favor of a minimum wage increase; and against proposed bans of same-sex marriage and “partial birth” abortion.
Rodriguez defeated Bonilla by 56 percent to 44 percent in Bexar County, which includes the district’s portions of San Antonio and where about 65 percent of the district’s vote was cast. Bonilla ran well in some of the district’s vast rural areas, but his margins there could not overcome Rodriguez’s advantages in and around San Antonio. But Rodriguez even narrowly led Bonilla in the areas of the 23rd outside of Bexar.
Bonilla became the 22nd House Republican to be defeated by a Democrat in the 2006 election. The Democrats also won eight districts that Republicans had left open — for that total net gain of 30 — while losing none of the seats that they held going into this year’s elections.
Bonilla’s defeat also underscored that even a high-ranking position in Congress is no sure shield when the electoral tide turns against a member’s party. He became the fifth Republican on the influential Appropriations Committee to suffer defeat at the polls this year, following Nov. 7 losers Charles H. Taylor of North Carolina, Anne M. Northup of Kentucky, John E. Sweeney of New York and Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania.
With Rodriguez’s victory, the 110th Congress is slated to convene Jan. 4 with 233 Democrats and 202 Republicans.
There still is one House outcome that is not totally certain at this point. Democrat Christine Jennings is contesting her apparent narrow loss in Florida’s 13th District, citing election machine irregularities, though Republican nominee Vern Buchanan — certified the winner by state election officials — has called on her to concede.
Copyright © 2006 Congressional Quarterly Inc.