Both elected in 2000, Martinez Fischer and Menéndez were Democratic freshman classmates in the Texas House, their legislative districts divvying up parts of San Antonio's west side.
On major issues there's little daylight between the two. Both want more dollars for public education. Both have endorsed expanding Medicaid eligibility to cover more poor Texans. And both support raising minimum wage requirements.
For all they share, the biggest contrast between the two lawmakers — at least symbolically — is embodied in one vote. In the 2015 legislative session, Martinez Fischer voted against the state budget; Menéndez voted for it. As the two head into the final weeks of their rematch over Senate District 26, that budget vote has come to define what the election will come down to: governing style.
Martinez Fischer, who lost to Menéndez in a special election for the Senate seat last year, says his opponent’s vote for the GOP-crafted budget is another example of Menéndez’s willingness to “go along to get along” in the Republican-controlled legislature.
Voters are looking for someone who will stand up to Republican leadership instead of compromising, Martinez Fischer says, and his mastery of legislative rules would benefit constituents. Once known as a noisy House member at the back mic, the 45-year-old lawyer has become a prominent negotiator in the chamber by using parliamentary maneuvers to hold up or tank legislation.
Menéndez’s pitch to voters is one of effectiveness over style. After succeeding retiring Sen. Leticia Van de Putte last year, Menéndez says he moved across the Capitol and quickly learned the workings of the Senate to pass several bills. A second vote against the budget — only one Senate Democrat voted against it — wouldn’t have changed anything and could have affected line items he negotiated into it, adds the 46-year-old businessman.
“There’s no back mic in the Texas Senate,” Menéndez said during a Texas Tribune event. “It’s a little offensive to other Democrats to say ‘I know how to use your rulebook better than you.’”
Capitol veterans and observers characterize the contrasting styles as a brawler versus a negotiator, and some say the latter may be best suited for the upper chamber.
“There’s a clear stylistic difference between the two: Trey is a fighter; Jose is a statesman,” said Christian Archer, a veteran San-Antonio based political strategist. “The jury is out on whether or not Trey can do well in the Senate. If he wins, he’ll have to adjust be more statesman-like if he wants to get anything done.”
Until last year, the Senate operated under the so-called two-thirds rule, which required that at least two-thirds of the Senate agree to start a debate on a particular piece of legislation. That meant it only took 11 senators — the exact number of Senate Democrats — to block debate on any issue.
But the GOP-controlled Senate did away with the rule last year, dramatically reducing Democrats’ influence in the chamber and solidifying Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s power over the agenda.
“The rules of the Senate have changed greatly, and the role of the senator for the 26th district is to make sure San Antonio has what it needs,” said Van de Putte, who stayed out of the race last year but endorsed Menéndez this time around. “Jose has proven both in the House and the Senate that he is very effective in doing that type of legislation to take care of the whole team ... Trey is a great leader, but he’s a great leader in a different format.”
Martinez Fischer pushes back on these claims: “I think this notion that I’m going to show up on day one with my bags packed ready to start throwing dukes” is what insiders would expect. There’s a difference between backing down from fights against Republicans and productively compromising with them, he says.
His backers say the race is about more than budget line items and that the party needs someone like Martinez Fischer in the Senate at a time when partisan politics have marginalized Democrats, keeping them from speaking up to avoid conflicting with those in power.
"To change state politics, Democrats have to stand up to Republicans in the Legislature when they do bad things," said U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro of San Antonio who served with Martinez Fischer and Menéndez in the House.
It’s virtually impossible to predict the outcome of the race based on the previous election cycle, and there’s little indication the race would be a clear referendum on Menéndez’s short time in the Senate.
Last year, Martinez Fischer was considered the front-runner in the race after ending the first round of the special election with 43 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff election between himself and Menéndez.
Menéndez went on to win the runoff with 59 percent of the vote in an election with dismal turnout. Only about 23,500 residents cast a vote in a district with more than 406,000 registered voters.
Turnout is expected to be higher this time around with a competitive Democratic presidential primary at the top the ticket. And only Democrats will be able to vote, unlike the free-for-all nature of special elections, where Republican voters can have a say in the winner — as was said to have happened in the special election.
Regardless of the election results, local Democratic leaders are bracing for a loss. San Antonio will be down another veteran lawmaker in a year of significant political turnover triggered by Julián Castro stepping down as mayor to join the Obama administration.
Unlike in the special election when he was able to keep his seat, Martinez Fischer gave up a chance at re-election in House District 116 this year to challenge Menéndez.
That hasn’t stopped the cash from flowing into the campaigns with both lawmakers raising hundreds of thousands dollars in the last year. Despite risking his House seat, Martinez Fischer has outraised Menéndez, tallying up about $20,000 more in contributions than Menéndez since announcing the rematch in December.
“Right now, both campaigns have very passionate supporters in the community and everyone thinks they can win,” said Manuel Medina, chair of the Bexar County Democratic Party. “But that reality — that one will no longer be in the state Legislature — will set in March 1.”