WASHINGTON – The hunt is on in Southeast Texas for a Democrat to challenge U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi.
At first glance, it might seem like an absurd notion; Farenthold won re-election by a 2-to-1 margin in 2014. But some Democrats say they have designs on the seat because of the seediness of accusations against the third-term congressman in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him in 2014.
For now, the Democrats’ political point man for House races only speaks about Texas in broad tones.
“We’re looking for opportunities all over the country, wherever they may be,” U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico told The Texas Tribune last week.
“Texas is an important state to us,” he added. “There’s important opportunities all over the country. I would say we’re keeping an eye on all districts all over the states.”
Privately, at least four Washington Democratic insiders who are knowledgeable about party recruitment efforts say there is a serious effort to unseat Farenthold.
The congressman's campaign spokesman brushed off the idea. Kurt Bardella pointed to chatter from the House Democratic campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, about targeting Farenthold in cycles past.
“Every election cycle, Washington Democrats thump their chest and talk about how this is the year they are going to defeat Blake Farenthold, and every year, the people of Texas’ 27th Congressional District re-elect him, most recently with more than 63 percent of the vote,” Bardella wrote in an email.
“If the DCCC wants to try to convince people in Corpus Christi, Victoria and Austin that they need new representation who will rubber-stamp Barack Obama’s executive amnesty, turn the other way while Hillary Clinton hides her emails and supports an IRS that illegally targets conservatives, they can go for broke and make that case,” he added.
The seat is safe Republican territory. Farenthold won in 2014 in a landslide, and Mitt Romney carried the district by 22 points in the 2012 presidential election.
Democrats argue, though, that Farenthold is a uniquely flawed incumbent because of the sexual harassment allegations. His opponents argue that no matter the political makeup of a district, it is politically untenable when a member of Congress has to file legal documents denying discussing “sexual fantasies” or “wet dreams” about a subordinate. Farenthold has denied that he directed sexually charged comments at his former communications director.
Adding to his image problems, Roll Call reported not long after the 2014 election that Farenthold registered the domain name “Blow-me.org” in 1999.
And winning the 27th District may not even be the objective for Democrats. It's to cause trouble for Republicans.
One Democratic operative pointed out that the party lost so many seats in 2014 that Democrats are widely expected to be on offense in the fall of 2016. The theoretical aim would be to force Republicans to "squander resources" that would otherwise be used against Democratic challengers and incumbents. For them, a competitive race materializing at all in the 27th District would be a moral victory.
And then there is the fact that the DCCC's online fundraising operation is the envy of American politics, a dynamic Farenthold's troubles could play into.
"They can make an example of Blake Farenthold that can raise the Democrats oodles of money," the Democratic operative added.
Still, congressmen with personal problems are nothing new in politics.
Among sitting members, Tennessee U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais came under primary fire for encouraging an ex-wife to have two abortions; U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina created a national firestorm as the state's governor over an extramarital affair; and Louisiana U.S. Sen. David Vitter was implicated in a prostitution scandal.
Now-former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm of New York won re-election last November while under indictment. He has since resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to tax fraud charges.
But those officeholders, while troubled in their personal lives, were adept politicians who ran agile campaigns.
Farenthold, so far, is untested and financially thin. The 2010 wave swept him into office with a stunning victory over now-former U.S. Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz. After the 2011 round of redistricting, the state Legislature mapmakers in Austin bolstered Farenthold's district into safe Republican territory.
Farenthold has work to do in order to increase his warchest. At the end of 2014, he had $47,000 in the bank. The next reporting period will end on on March 31. Farenthold’s new cash-on-hand totals will be available by April 15.
At least one Republican staffer in Washington acknowledged that Farenthold has serious problems, but insisted the onus remained on Democrats to find a viable recruit and adequately fund that person's campaign.
On that front, Democrats had been optimistic about luring Corpus Christi Mayor Nelda Martinez into the race. She confirmed to the Tribune that national Democrats had approached her about a run.
A bilingual politician, she might have turned out the district’s considerable Hispanic vote. There was so much chatter about her impending campaign, she said, that a person approached her at a recent City Council meeting offering to be her campaign manager. The problem? She is not interested.
“I do not want to run for Congress,” she said. “I absolutely love my job now, and I am committed to finish my platform for the city of Corpus Christi and my region."
A race may or may not materialize for Democrats. The party has about eight months to find a recruit, ahead of the tentative December filing deadline in Texas.
But at this early point in the cycle, there is a determination among them to go after Farenthold.