WASHINGTON — It’s not often national magazines profile a Congressional candidate in an obscure House race. But in South Texas this winter, a candidate named Dolly Elizondo had a chance to make history.
Elizondo, a Democrat, was running to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Edinburg. If successful, she would have been the first Latina from Texas to serve in Congress, and the first freshman female Texan elected to a full term in 20 years.
History, however, didn’t happen.
On March 1, Elizondo placed third in the six-way Democratic primary behind attorney Vicente Gonzalez and Edinburg school board member Juan “Sonny” Palacios, Jr.
More bruising, she missed the May 24 runoff by a mere 1,026 votes out of more than 50,000 cast.
“A thousand votes,” sighed Houston attorney Amber Mostyn, a prominent national Democratic donor and Elizondo backer. “It’s a hard loss.”
While some Elizondo supporters say her campaign was always going to face challenges trying to elect the first Texas Latina to Congress, a postmortem analysis reveals several other issues Elizondo ran into: strong competition, a condensed primary and a lack of money. The overall picture that emerges is one of a campaign that drew some statewide and national interest from Democrats but not enough concrete financial or logistical support to translate that excitement into a winning campaign.
The Rio Grande Valley is a region Texas Democratic operatives widely describe as particularly difficult — if not outright hostile — to female candidates. Despite Hillary Clinton's success there this year, voters in the region have proven historically less open to female candidates lower on the ballot.
But Elizondo's background made her seem like that rare candidate who could break the rules and make history. She brought to the campaign an up-from-her-bootstraps story of a single mother who raised her daughters while earning bachelor's and masters degrees. She went on to own her own real estate business.
She was also a local political insider, serving both as chairwoman of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party and on the board of Annie's List, an organization that aims to elect Democratic women to state office.
Hinojosa officially announced his retirement on Nov. 13. Elizondo declared her campaign in early December.
Elizondo joined a crowded field, and Palacios and Gonzalez quickly emerged as her top rivals. Palacios served on a local school board and was from an eminent political family locally. Gonzalez was not well known, but his campaign quickly began airing holiday-themed television ads.
Elizondo had little time to build up her campaign. The holidays make December a notoriously terrible time for political fundraising. The remaining calendar left about six weeks in the new year for her to raise her profile locally and among national donors before early voting started.
But on Jan. 31, freshly filed campaign finance reports dropped a bomb on the Elizondo campaign: Gonzalez had loaned his campaign $750,000. That amount would eventually escalate to $1.2 million before the primary was over.
In comparison, Elizondo raised a little shy of $300,000 over the entire primary cycle. Her eventual haul actually surpassed that of Palacios, who raised about $220,000. While some of that was Palacios' own investment, his operation also benefited from his family's decadeslong ties to the region.
Gonzalez tapped his campaign account to put billboards along Interstate 2. He also spent heavily on TV ads. It was soon apparent Elizondo was in a fight for second place with Palacios.
But the 15th Congressional District is a poor district, and if Elizondo was to overcome Palacios’ operation and Gonzalez’s war chest, she would have to raise big money herself, particularly outside the district's borders.
"No matter where the money was going to come from, money was a factor," Elizondo said Thursday. "You can't really deny that."
Along with pumping $90,000 of her own money into her campaign, Elizondo also received a boost in donations thanks largely to an endorsement from EMILY’s List, a national group that backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. Beyond the endorsement, EMILY’s List plugged her candidacy to other donors and sent staffers to support her campaign.
While EMILY's List made a direct donation to Elizondo's campaign of $5,000, its super PAC did not invest in the race. In comparison, the super PAC has spent or committed at least $1 million to back the group's preferred candidates in two U.S. Senate primary races.
Despite the super PAC's lack of involvement, Elizondo said EMILY's List was on the ground before she even launched her campaign, and the group's endorsement helped her make her case to donors.
"Their endorsement was the pathway to raising the money that I did raise to begin with," Elizondo said. "I couldn't have done it without them."
And a group spokeswoman said the organization would keep an eye on her in the future.
“Dolly ran an outstanding campaign, and we were proud to be there with her every step of the way,” said EMILY’s List spokeswoman Rachel Thomas. “We know that Dolly will continue to be a leader in her community, and we can’t wait to see what she does next.”
Elizondo also drew the support of dozens of Texas donors, many of whom were members of Annie's List, which is something of a Texas state-level sister to EMILY's List. Former state Sen. Wendy Davis wrote two personal checks to the campaign, and state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-San Antonio, sent money from her campaign. Mostyn, the major Democratic donor, maxed out with $8,100 in support, but campaign finance rules prevented much of that money from being spent until a would-be runoff and general election.
If Elizondo was hoping the historic nature of her campaign would help further boost her campaign fund, she was likely disappointed. There was no obvious organized effort in Washington to push for a Texas Hispanic congresswoman. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, was the lone federal officeholder to send Elizondo money.
So why didn’t any other female members give?
Gillibrand's political antenna is tuned specifically to support female Democratic candidates. In recent years, the junior senator from New York has emerged as a chief national recruiter, mentor and donor to future congresswomen.
But Gillibrand is a senator, not a member of the U.S. House. Several Democratic Capitol Hill sources noted that representatives are often reluctant to take sides in a primary unless they have longtime loyalties with a candidate. The risk is that a bet on a losing candidate translates to starting off on the wrong foot with the victor, a new colleague.
Further working against Elizondo was strong interest by House Democrats to end their six-year run in the minority. The notion of a potentially divisive Republican like real estate magnate Donald Trump or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz at the top of the ballot makes some Democrats cautiously wonder if that could swing enough races around the country for the House gavel to be in play.
With that in the minds of many Democratic operatives, picking favorites in primaries became harder to justify. Instead, the prevailing aim was is to channel every dollar into the fall races.
During an interview over breakfast on the first day of early voting, Elizondo interrupted herself when she saw former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear on a television screen.
“There’s my girl,” she exclaimed.
Irony of ironies, Elizondo’s idol probably hurt her own political efforts. While the notion of the first Texas Latina in Congress excited feminist circles, it’s largely an afterthought when the country is poised to nominate the first female major party candidate in history.
Three weeks later, Elizondo said the historical significance of her candidacy turned out to be more difficult to impart than she had hoped.
"I think that message was conveyed too late to stakeholders, and they had to think about it," Elizondo said. "There should have been planning ahead of time in case a seat became vacant."
For Mostyn and many other state and national promoters of women in public office, it was progress that a woman even ran a credible campaign for a South Texas seat. Open seats created by retirements are the best opportunities for women to run. Aside from current veteran incumbents like U.S. Reps. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth and Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, it's hard to recall the last time a Texas woman launched a viable campaign for Congress.
“It’s encouraging because we do need to get more female representation at the higher levels of government for that area of the state,” Mostyn said of South Texas.
Elizondo said she hasn't ruled out a run in 2018. But that would probably be an even harder campaign as there's a general reluctance in the donor world to support candidates who challenge incumbents.
Even so, she said, seeds were planted for the future for herself or another Texas Latina.
"I'm so grateful for this opportunity because it opened everyone's eyes," she said.
Disclosure: Amber Mostyn is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.