Here’s a primary ballot quirk that could leave some Texas voters scratching their heads: One Democratic candidate to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa in Congressional District 15 is Ruben Ramirez Hinojosa, a 33-year-old University of Houston law student and U.S. Army combat veteran from McAllen.
Different guy, nearly identical name.
Democrats say the coincidence could confuse voters, leading some to vote for the relative youngster— who unsuccessfully ran under a different name for Hinojosa’s seat in 2012 — thinking they're casting a ballot for the man who represented their South Texas district for two decades.
“From the party’s perspective, I am concerned,” said Ricardo Godinez, chair of the Hidalgo County Democrats. “It’s an open seat, and it’s hard to get voters to vote in the first place, and to have them fully informed.”
The concerns have bubbled up to Washington, where Rep. Hinojosa and his staff openly talked about asking the party to change the candidate’s name on the ballot, listing him instead as Ruben Ramon Ramirez — the name he used in the 2012 Democratic primary when he drew about five percent of the vote.
Ramirez Hinojosa told The Texas Tribune he isn’t trying to confuse voters. He said he is proud of his mother’s name — Hinojosa — which he uses interchangeably with Ramirez, his father’s last name.
“It’s a name that people do know me by,” he said, though his driver’s license does not say Hinojosa.
What’s more, the candidate added, he’s no fan of the retiring House member — even if they share a name.
“He’s been a do-nothing, do-little congressman,” Ramirez Hinojosa said. “My name and me going out there — if anything, could help his image.”
Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said the party “had no authority” to alter a candidate’s name on the ballot. Such a change could only be triggered by another candidate’s challenge in court, and it’s not clear that any of Hinojosa’s opponents would go that route.
Edinburg lawyer Juan “Sonny” Palacios, one of those candidates, said he did not view Ramirez Hinojosa’s name as a major issue. “He’s free to run under any name he chooses,” he said. “Do I think he did it to pick up some lose votes? I would hope he had no malintent, but I’m sure it crossed his mind.”
Other Democrats in the race include: former Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chair Dolly Elizondo of Mission; Joel Quintanilla, former Hidalgo County Commissioner and Mercedes mayor; McAllen attorney Vicente Gonzalez; and Rance G. ‘Randy’ Sweeten, a McAllen accountant.
Ramirez Hinojosa said supporters urged him to use his mother’s name during his 2012 run, but he declined — preventing a match of dueling Hinojosas.
“I didn’t do it last time because I didn’t want anybody to get confused,” he said. “Now that he’s out, it’s a different playing field.”
Still, the familiar name could sow confusion in 2016, particularly in such a crowded race, some watching the contest say.
“That will have the effect of confusing voters, particularly voters that may not be focused on that particular race,” Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. “They may think they’re voting for an incumbent, or voting for a name that’s just familiar to them.”
Matt Angle, one of the state's top Democratic strategists, said he would file the naming issue under the category of “cheap, but not dirty tricks.”
“I think he’s trying to give himself half a leg up. And it might. It’ll create some confusion,” Angle said, though he wasn’t sure how much it could tip the scales in the candidate’s favor. “I think the candidates that are serious in this race are going to raise enough money to get their name out there, so it won’t matter.”
Should Ramirez Hinojosa force a runoff, he would likely draw enough scrutiny to clear up any confusion in the next round of voting, Angle and others said.
Ramirez Hinojosa said he could understand such concerns, and he could see how using the name might benefit a run financed on a “shoestring budget.”
“When people do see the name — I’m hoping that they will take a second look,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about the issue. It’s about the candidate.”
The married father of two, poised to graduate from law school next spring, said he was particularly focused on improving education — “the tool to break the bindings of poverty."
He said he was initially considering featuring his first name on his campaign materials, but decided not to after seeing who was running on the Republican side of the race.
Among the candidates: former Rio Grande City Mayor Rubén O. Villarreal.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Jerry Polinard as a political scientist at the University of Texas-Pan American. He is at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.