SAN ANTONIO — Texas Republicans are used to playing offense — and winning — but in the sprawling 23rd Congressional District, they have a fight on their hands.
Two years ago, Francisco "Quico" Canseco rode the Tea Party wave to Washington after defeating the Democratic incumbent. Now he faces a challenge from state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, who has served in the Legislature for 22 years.
The district, larger than Mississippi, stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and encompasses 800 miles of the Texas-Mexico border. It has the unusual distinction of being both overwhelmingly Hispanic (66 percent) and almost perfectly balanced between the two parties.
In 2008, Barack Obama got 49.88 percent of the vote here, and John McCain got 49.27 percent.
In some ways, the closely fought race offers a glimpse of the state’s future: Hispanics make up almost 40 percent of Texas’ population, and they are expected to outnumber whites before the next census in 2020. Both parties are trying to win their loyalties in Texas, and this year CD-23 is ground zero — awash with outside money and national party anxiety.
Democrats and their allies, convinced that Canseco’s Tea Party views make him an outlier in the state’s only congressional swing district, are pouring money into the race.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has sunk $1.3 million into the race so far, and the League of Conservation Voters has spent $1 million trying to take out the Republican incumbent, records from the Center for Responsive Politics show.
Canseco is leaving nothing to chance.
During campaign swings last week, he exhorted Republican activists to man phone banks, walk door to door and spread his message that Democrats want to inflict “European-style socialism” on the United States.
“This is a tough race, a very tough race,” Canseco said during one campaign stop. “I can’t win it without you.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee has matched the $1.3 million spent by its Democratic counterpart in the district, and Canseco has outraised his opponent by $1 million, records show.
The air war has fallen along mostly predictable rhetorical lines. Gallego is portraying Canseco as an “extremist” who would dismantle the social safety net. Canseco says Gallego is a “radical” bent on destroying the pro-business climate and undermining traditional family values. Both sides allege their records are being distorted.
It has surprised no one that things have turned nasty, but one advertisement stands out. Canseco’s campaign distributed a mailer that used both an image of Jesus Christ, an infant and a picture of two men kissing — all to highlight what the congressman says is Gallego’s liberal record on abortion and gay rights.
Predictably, the ad has sparked a firestorm of controversy.
Gallego, a devout Catholic, says the mailer is inaccurate and inflammatory and is demanding an apology. And now even a few Republicans — a current legislator and two former ones, have flocked to his side.
“Jesus should not be a prop for any campaign,” said state Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, who is not seeking re-election.
Canseco is unbowed. His campaign manager, Scott Yeldell, accused Gallego of trying to score points by “acting like he stands up for the faith he abandoned years ago.” The Gallego campaign called the statement “vile and disgusting.”
The picture of Jesus in the Canseco mailer sits next to a block of text that says, “Three times they said NO TO GOD.” The mailer attempts to associate Gallego with efforts to remove the word “God” from the party’s platform at the Democratic National Convention last month in Charlotte, N.C.
Gallego noted that he did not attend the party’s convention and said he supported the ultimately successful effort to restore the language.
The picture of the baby and the two men are designed to illustrate differences between the two candidates on the hot-button topics of abortion and gay marriage. Canseco notes that the National Abortion Rights Action League, or NARAL, gave Gallego a "100 percent pro-abortion rating" and said Gallego favored gay marriage.
In both cases, Gallego said the ad distorts his views.
NARAL scores each legislative session, and the group has given Gallego a 100 percent rating for some of them. But in others, the group has given him a score as low as 55 percent.
The Alpine Democrat favors abortion rights for women, but he voted for the law that gives parents a say in whether their minor children can undergo the procedure. He voted against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but released a statement at the time — along with former Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco — that said he opposed same-sex marriage rights but opposed the amendment because it could ban civil unions, according to the House journal from April 25, 2005.
“I fully agree that the institution of marriage should be limited to one man and one woman,” the statement read. “However, in its continuing zeal to protect the institution of marriage, the legislature now infringes on the contractual rights of both men and women. For example, common-law marriages between men and women are in essence civil unions — but the Chisum Amendment bans civil unions between men and women — and not solely between individuals of the same sex. This is an unnecessary and improper governmental intrusion into the rights of individuals.”
Canseco describes himself as pro-life and says he is opposed to legalizing gay marriage, but his campaign did not respond to repeated queries about whether he would allow any exceptions for abortion or if he opposes gay civil unions. Visitors to Canseco's website retrieve an error page when they click on the "Issues" button.
While policy issues and ads have gotten most of the attention in the race, they may not be the determining factor.
Larry Hufford, a political science professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, said he doubted Canseco would resort to such an “incredibly ugly” ad if he were not worried about losing his seat. But he said the "Jesus ad" — or any of their ads, for that matter — probably wouldn’t move the needle in a sharply divided electorate.
“Ultimately, I think the winner is going to be determined by the presidential turnout,” Hufford said. “And it’s close.”