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Primary Color: HD-43

Ideological purity is the big issue on March 2 in this South Texas district. Freshman state Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra, D-South Padre Island, touts her "moderate" approach and bipartisan tendencies, but her challenger insists, “The first thing we have to do is get rid of all the closet Republicans from the Democratic Party."

J.M. Lozano and Tara Rios Ybarra

Don’t let the pleasant demeanor of the Democratic candidates for this South Texas seat fool you.

The incumbent is freshman state Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra, D-South Padre Island, a dentist who, on the Tuesday before the primary, makes the rounds in Harlingen — first at an adult day care center and then at a blue-collar diner — smiling and shaking hands as staffers try to keep pace. Her challenger is soft-spoken businessman J.M Lozano of Kingsville, where his expressions of his faith and devotion to his family are as commonly seen as the yard signs touting him as the best person for the job.

In private, the race between them is nothing less than a bare-knuckled throw-down, and at stake is party purity. Lozano’s strategy is to label Rios Ybarra a "red Texan." Her campaign contributions from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry ($10,000 from Jan. 22 through Feb. 20) and the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC (about $145,000 in-kind during the same time frame), both well-known backers of Republicans, are all the evidence he needs. His vision is of a blue Texas, he says, and that means weeding out what she represents. “The first thing we have to do is get rid of all the closet Republicans from the Democratic Party. My opponent is one of them,” he says. “You cannot have a strong Democratic Party if you have people that are beholden to the other party because you take 90 percent of your funding from them.”

Rios Ybarra defends her "moderate" approach and her bipartisan tendencies, and the support she says comes with them, because of the economic hardship in District 43, which is one of the poorest in the state. It covers six counties — Jim Hogg, Brooks, Willacy, Kenedy, Kleberg and northern Cameron — and about a third of the families with children live in poverty. Nearly 40 percent of residents have less than a high school education. “I believe, in this country, that it isn’t about handouts,” she says. “I believe ultimately it’s about creating opportunity, and that is done when we have a strong small-business sector. If that resonates across the aisle, that resonates across the aisle.”

But Lozano’s accusations carry weight with at least one party mainstay. In a rare endorsement before a contested primary, the Jim Hogg County Democratic Party is backing Lozano. "A Democrat primarily financed by Republicans is no Democrat at all," its chair, Juan Carlos Guerra, said in a Feb. 19 statement. Guerra claimed Rios Ybarra "hijacked” the term “Democrat” to claim victory in 2008 in this Democratic-majority district. "We will not sit back as a Democratic Party any longer and allow Republicans to infiltrate our party,” the statement continued. “She misled the voters once, but that will not happen again.”

An unfazed Rios Ybarra contends that her first term in the House, when she passed seven bills, shows her mettle. One that she's most proud of, she says, allows access to Texas beaches by disabled people in motorized vehicles — and yet Lozano has criticized her for it. "He made fun of a bill that was given to me by the mother whose son was a quadriplegic and he couldn’t have access to the beach,” she complains.

A stone-faced Lozano says, “Ask her who gave her that bill. It was a lobbyist.”

And yet Lozano has to fend off accusations of his own: that he is just as beholden his own financial backers, the trial lawyers, (about $85,000 in contributions in February) and that he is bullheaded, as Rios Ybarra characterizes him, and that he's ignorant on state fiscal matters. “It’s frustrating to have a candidate who goes around saying we’re going to get grants for this and grants for that,” she says. “I am sticking to the truth, which is that we are going to have a difficult session.”

Rios Yarra also says Lozano lacks knowledge of the political process. “My opponent is touting that he will not, in many cases, work with Republicans,” she says. “I think that is un-American actually. I think those are the problems we’re seeing with the federal government and with Texas politics. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Lozano notes that the is the son of a Republican doctor who was served, he says, with a frivolous lawsuit. He doesn’t deny that such lawsuits get filed, but he says groups like TLR and their preferred candidates want to do away with the judicial process as a whole. “Whenever you put duct tape on the mouth of a juror, I believe you are violating the document that created this country,” he said. “Those lawsuits should not be filed, but there is nothing to prevent that. But what they want to do is eliminate everything, even if there is a legitimate claim.”

A recent controversy that turns out to be a non-starter in the race is Rios Ybarra's marital status. She and her husband, Richard Ybarra, are divorcing after about eight years together. In a deposition, she admitted that since they split, she's been in a relationship with a campaign contributor, developer Clayton Brashear. But she points out that her soon-to-be-ex has also donated to her campaign, and whatever negative publicity she endured has waned. Asked if he intended to make an issue of her romantic life, Lozano says their are more important things to deal with in the district.

No Republican filed for the general election, so the winner of the March 2 primary will face only a Libertarian candidate, Richard Shuey, in November.

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