More than 200 miles of open sky and a long stretch of Interstate 10 separate the two districts represented in the Texas House by Republican Reps. Gilbert Peña of Pasadena and Rick Galindo of San Antonio.
But the two freshmen find themselves in common political territory this election, trying to hold onto seats they wrested from Democrats two years ago in districts with largely Hispanic populations. In both cases, the Democrats they beat in 2014 are back for a rematch.
With the campaigns headed into their final days and Texas voters already casting ballots, the Republican incumbents are leaning on their short records and getting help from big-name conservatives amid concerns about low GOP turnout. Meanwhile, the Democrats that set up rematches in both districts are, in part, betting that the backdrop of the presidential race will help boost their chances.
“The thing we’re working on the hardest is probably getting out the vote,” said Democrat Mary Ann Perez, who lost the House District 144 seat to Peña in 2014 by 152 votes. “I’m hoping with the presidential year we can probably be closer the 2012 number of voters than we were in 2014."
Perez, a 54-year-old insurance agent who was elected to the seat in 2012 with just 52 percent of the vote, points out voter turnout in 2014 — under 12,000 — was less than half the turnout when she won the seat two years earlier.
With the higher turnout in a presidential election year, she said, reclaiming her old seat is within striking distance.
Hoping to hold the district that’s made up in part by Pasadena and a sliver of east Houston, Peña, a 67-year-old construction retiree, says he’s emphasizing his legislative work authoring several bills and passing four that were signed by the governor during his first session.
“I went to Austin, and I worked hard for my district,” Peña said, brushing off any effect the presidential race might have in his district. “She’s thinking the outcome will be different because of Hillary Clinton ... I don't think it’s going to make any difference; neither candidate is well-liked.”
Presidential politics aside, Perez held a significant financial lead over the incumbent going into the last leg of the election, reporting almost $58,000 in campaign cash on hand compared to Peña’s stash of approximately $26,500 as of Sept. 29.
In House District 117, which runs down the western outskirts of San Antonio and includes a southwestern sliver of the city, Democrat Philip Cortez has also tied his fate in part to the presidential race, attempting to Trump-tag Republican incumbent Galindo.
Cortez, a 38-year-old member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve who just wrapped up a six-month deployment in the Middle East, was not available for comment. His campaign manager, Gabe Apodaca, pointed out that the veterans and military families pervasive in the district are spurning Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump but that Galindo hasn’t denounced him.
“There is one person who is having it, and that’s Rick Galindo,” Apodaca said, pointing to Galindo’s interview with the San Antonio Express-News editorial board in which he offered no opinion of Trump. “He might be the only person in the country who has no opinion on him.”
Campaign representatives for Galindo, 35, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. At a recent get-out-the-vote rally in Bexar County, Galindo, who works in risk management, made no mention of the Republican nominee, instead sticking to core Republican issues and his work knocking on doors.
“When I get out of here, I have time off from work, [so] I’m going to go change and continue to block walk,” Galindo told the crowd at the event. “That’s how you win these races. That’s how I won.”
In San Antonio, Galindo and Cortez each raised more than $100,000 from July to the end of September. But even after spending twice as much as his opponent, Galindo's financial head start left him with approximately $40,300 in his campaign chest on Sept. 29 compared to Cortez’s $35,000.
Some Democrats involved in the races have likened them to the heated rematch in the 23rd Congressional District — one of the few competitive congressional races in Texas. The seat has flipped back and forth between parties depending on presidential turnout. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, is trying to hold off a challenge from Pete Gallego, a Democrat from Alpine who formerly held the seat.
“I see Pete Gallego’s and my battles about the same,” Perez said about the comparison. “And the biggest hurdle is going to be to keep it in 2018 and then redistricting.”
Matt Angle, director of the Democratic group Lone Star Project, said the districts — with majority-minority populations — might be expected to go Democratic, but that can be “overcome by hard partisan Anglo Republican votes.”
Republicans haven’t come close to framing the races in the same way, but they’ve indirectly acknowledged the legislative districts in play could be among the closest races in a deep red state where few districts are competitive, largely because of how legislative districts are drawn.
Amid concerns about Trump’s down-ballot effect, popular Texas Republicans are stepping up their campaigning for both Peña and Galindo. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Land Commissioner George P. Bush were set to speak at a get-out-the-vote rally Monday evening at Peña’s campaign headquarters in Pasadena.
At the Bexar County rally Galindo addressed, Bush followed the state Republican party chairman’s endorsement of Trump by making no mention of the presidential nominee and instead emphasizing the importance of straight-ticket voting.
“Believe it or not,” Bush told the crowd. “The battleground of Texas politics will be right here in Bexar County.”
Early voting started up Monday. Election day is Nov. 8.
Reporter Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.