The candidates in the runoff for the Democratic nomination in Congressional District 23 are wasting little time ahead of the July 31 election, traveling and shaking hands with residents in the 500-mile-long district.
Ciro Rodriguez, a former congressman who lost the CD-23 seat in 2010 to U.S. Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco, R-San Antonio, and Pete Gallego, a longtime state representative from Alpine, are vying for the seat. The district stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and along the Mexico border, just below Eagle Pass. The runoff winner will face Canseco in the general election.
The race against Canseco will be close, according to experts. The Cook Political Report lists CD-23 as a toss-up — with the Democratic and GOP candidates having virtually equal chances at winning the seat. Both Democrats and Republicans have won the district in recent years. In the 2004 presidential election, the district voted for President George W. Bush, but in the 2008 election, then-Sen. Barack Obama won the district.
The potentially tight general election is providing extra motivation in the Democratic runoff, as both candidates focus on reaching out to residents personally. But the district's large size makes that difficult.
“I'm shaking every hand and making every speech I can,” Gallego said. “That's the story of my life through November.”
Despite the diverse region with urban centers like San Antonio and El Paso, rural ranching areas and multiple border cities, Rodriguez and Gallego said the concerns of those communities share more similarities than differences.
“There are a lot of the same issues. The economy is critical, as are quality-of-life issues like health care and Medicare,” Rodriguez said.
When it comes to key issues, there is little difference between Gallego and Rodriguez. Rodriguez characterized himself as a “fighter” and “a little more aggressive in terms of making things happen,” whereas Gallego touted his ability to “reach across the aisle to solve problems and get things done.”
John Bustamante, who lost in the May 29 Democratic primary in CD-23, is backing Rodriguez. He cited Rodriguez's ability to connect with his constituents as a main reason for endorsement.
“He's proven to be an effective advocate for the people of the 23rd District, and that's what I learned throughout the campaign process," Bustamante said. “He was out talking to people.”
San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro has endorsed Gallego, even though Rodriguez is from San Antonio and has represented the city before.
"I'm confident he'll be a strong voice on some of the more important issues for San Antonio like education and infrastructure funding and health care," Castro said of Gallego. "I believe Ciro is a good man, but I'm convinced that Pete would do the best job, and would provide the strongest representation."
A victory in CD-23 would be a coup for the Democrats, said analyst David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. "The Democrats are hoping to come out of Texas with at least several seats from Dallas and Brownsville, but it'd be icing on the cake if they picked up the 23rd District."
Wasserman said Gallego has a better chance than Rodriguez of beating Canseco, because he can better appeal to independent and Republican voters. He pointed out that Gallego won a Republican-leaning district in 2010. However, Rodriguez has name recognition on his side.
"He has a good following, and is more well-known than Gallego, but he hasn't been working hard to raise as much money, and has been relying on that name recognition," Wasserman said.
Rodriguez raised $304,053 from January 2011 to July 11 of this year, while Gallego raised $844,502 between September 2011 and July 11, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Besides the district's size, the timing of the runoff also poses a challenge, because it is on a Tuesday in the middle of the summer.
“It's not the best time for turnout in South Texas,” Gallego said.
Local Democratic organizers have tried to ensure a good turnout. The El Paso County Democrats are mailing 10,000 reminders to constituents and have encouraged people to go to the candidates' rallies. They have also raised money for TV and radio campaign ads to get voters to the polls.
Democrats in Medina County — an area that was key to Canseco's 2010 victory — have also ramped up their efforts. They have been having weekly meetings and other various events to drum up interest.
The Democratic winner will have an uphill battle. With the runoff so close to the general election, there won't be much time for the Democratic winner to campaign against Canseco.
“The truth is that there is has to be an immediate move forward. There's no downtime,” Gallego said. “My fundraising is going really well right now, but we're obviously going to have to continue to do what we need to do to be competitive, and hit the ground running in August.”
Rodriguez shared similar sentiments.
“November is going to be difficult," he said. "We have to get our base out, and reach out. I feel good about the work we've been doing in the primary and the runoff, and we have to continue to do that."