Democrat Fights to Retain Congressional Seat in Republican Texas

Voters in southwest Texas must decide in November whether to re-elect a Democratic U.S. congressman or replace him with a popular grassroots Republican.

The Democrat is Ciro Rodriguez, incumbent representative for the Texas 23rd District, which stretches nearly 1,000 kilometers from San Antonio to El Paso. Republican challenger Lyle Larson has served in local government in the San Antonio area for 17 years.

Rodriguez’s political career appeared to be finished after eight years in Congress representing the Texas 28th Congressional District, when a 2004 Republican-engineered redistricting cut off his base of support in heavily Hispanic South San Antonio and he lost a primary to another Democrat.

In 2006, Rodriguez decided to run again when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Texas 23rd’s lines redrawn to include more Hispanic voters. Rodriguez’s home fell within the new boundaries.

Rodriguez’s main opponent was incumbent Henry Bonilla, a Hispanic who was a rising star in the Republican Party.

There were seven candidates in the first round of voting in 2006. No one got a majority of the votes, which forced a runoff between Bonilla and Rodriguez, the second-place finisher.

In the runoff, Rodriguez won 54 percent of the vote to Bonilla’s 46 percent. So, in 2008, Rodriguez seeks re-election for the first time from the Texas 23rd.

Larson is doing all he can to stop him.

Larson grew up on a dairy farm near San Antonio and went into business after graduating from Texas A&M; University in 1981.

He entered politics 10 years later, winning a seat on the San Antonio City Council. Since 1997, he has served as a commissioner of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio.

As the lone Republican in county government, Larson has promoted tax cuts and led efforts to save area military bases. He has voted against, and refused to take, any pay increases.

The Issues

In his campaign, Rodriguez emphasizes his experience and seniority on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and the House Appropriations Committee.

In those positions, he has won funding for stronger security along the district’s border with Mexico, and to expand military facilities and veterans services in San Antonio.

Larson is promising fiscal discipline and a curb on wasteful spending if he is elected.

He also wants more local control over border security and immigration policies. And regarding veterans, he says they deserve “the best health care in the world.”

As the campaign enters its final weeks, Rodriguez enjoys a big advantage in campaign funds. He has $1.2 million on hand, four times as much as Larson.

“It’s going to be a tough race, taking on an incumbent that has raised a million dollars,” Larson told the Texas Observer. “But people are pretty frustrated with Congress right now. Rodriguez has to explain what’s going on in Washington.”

Both candidates will try to energize their bases and secure a big turnout of supporters for Election Day on November 4.

“The way we can hold on to it, really, is to get the Hispanic vote out,” said Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Carla Vela in an interview with “Only that will save us. So Ciro really has to work on that area, of getting them out.”

The Bexar County Republican leader, Richard E. Langlois, said Larson will need “to get the [predominately Anglo] Northside San Antonio vote out, get the independents out, and we can win. We didn’t have that last time [in 2006].”

Langlois remains upset that the courts redrew the 23rd’s boundaries two years ago.

“They left in certain parts of Bexar County that are among the fastest-growing neighborhoods, with higher mortgages, so to speak,” he said. “I’d say in another five or six years, with the growth that’s going on, that sector that they left in there is going to be determinate and probably going to be Republican. So the Supreme Court is going to end up getting egg on their face, hopefully, for meddling in our business.”

Impact of the Presidential Race

The Rodriguez-Larson contest also will be affected by the presidential race.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain is expected to defeat Democrat Barack Obama in the battle for Texas’ 34 electoral votes.

The last Democratic presidential candidate to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Republicans now hold all statewide offices in Texas.

In the Texas Democratic primary in March, Obama lost the vote of Hispanics to Senator Hillary Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin. The large population of Hispanic Democrats in the Texas 23rd has seemed lukewarm toward the Obama campaign since he secured the Democratic presidential nomination.

A big turnout for McCain could benefit Larson; an apathetic response to Obama could mean fewer voters marking their ballots for Rodriguez.

The coming weeks will test the skills and strategies of Larson and Rodriguez as they compete to get their supporters to the polls and win the right to represent the Texas 23rd in Washington during the next Congress.

This article is part of’s continuing coverage of seven of the 435 U.S. congressional districts during the 2008 campaign. Each offers a different prism from which to view U.S. politics.

Story By Michael W. Drudge.

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