It was an unexpected blow for Democrats when Republican John Lujan won the state House District 118 seat in a special election earlier this year.
For the first time in as long as anyone could remember, the San Antonio-based Democratic stronghold went red when Lujan defeated a member of a Democratic political family with deep ties to the community.
But Lujan’s tenure — less than nine months in office with no legislative votes — could be cut short as he heads into a rematch with Democrat Tomas Uresti, who lost the January special election runoff to finish the term of Democrat Joe Farias. Farias represented the district for nine years before stepping down in August 2015.
Democrats who called Lujan’s win a low-turnout fluke are out to prove that the San Antonio district, which is largely Hispanic, is in fact Democratic territory. Meanwhile, the Bexar County Republicans who bragged about flipping the seat are acknowledging Lujan’s re-election is a tough bet.
“Even in the special election, I shouldn’t have won that race,” said Lujan, 54, a former firefighter turned vice president of a tech consulting company.
Lujan won 52 percent of the vote in an election that saw just 3,589 voters cast ballots.
With a presidential election boosting turnout this time around, Lujan concedes the fight to hold onto his seat has proven to be “tougher than what I thought,” but said he believes Democratic voters are again crossing over to vote for him — something that’s key to a second victory.
As of Sept. 29, Lujan trailed Uresti on the financial front, with just $263.80 on hand and an outstanding $4,000 loan, but he had outspent his opponent by almost double since July. Uresti entered the final leg of the campaign with $2,719 on hand and a $4,600 loan.
Uresti, who says public education and child protective issues top his priorities, says he doesn’t see a Republican path to victory in a legislative district that’s reliably Democratic and only turned red because of low voter turnout.
“This has been a Democratic district for 40 years,” said Uresti, 56. “No one came and decided it was now Republican. It was a fluke.”
This is the third time the two men have faced off. Last November, Lujan and Uresti were the top two finishers in a special election with a six-candidate field, garnering 29 percent and 22 percent respectively. In the January runoff, Uresti lost to Lujan by 171 votes. That was despite the name ID his surname carried in the area. Uresti is the brother of state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who represented the House district from 1997 to 2006.
And there will be a third Uresti on the ballot. Albert Uresti, their older brother, is seeking re-election as the county’s tax assessor-collector. Despite their Republican opponents pushing a “No Mas Uresti”-theme, Uresti says having all three on the ballot has been a “plus” because it reminds people of how much their family has given to the community.
And the campaign will do little to distract from the fact that Lujan is a Trump supporter, Uresti added.
Lujan doesn’t necessarily shy away from the standard-bearer of his party. He says he is “supporting him lightly” but admits Trump frustrates him even as his opponent tries to tie him to the Republican presidential nominee.
“For a while, I thought I was Donald Trump’s running mate,” Lujan says in jest, but he admits, “there’s no doubt there’s a Trump factor on my race.”
Lujan says he’s focusing on three local issues that are important to HD 118 voters: school board reform, addressing a massive tire dump within the district and helping a colonia get paved roads.
It’s those important local issues “that need to be handled through the state Legislature” that might help Lujan overcome any negative effect Trump might have down the ballot, said Robert Stovall, chairman of the county’s Republican party.
But he acknowledges it won’t be an easy feat. “We just think there will be a lot of crossover vote, and we think it’s going to be a squeaker,” Stovall added.
HD 118 voters have turned out for Democratic candidates in the previous four statewide elections, most recently giving President Obama an almost 10-point margin during his re-election. In 2008, Obama won the district by 11 points.
With presidential candidates at the top of the ticket, Democrats are counting on a boost from straight-ticket voting in HD 118.
“At the end of the special election, we said that the newly elected representative from San Antonio will never take a vote in the Legislature, and we fully expect that to be the case,” said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “We expect this Democratic district to perform like a Democratic district.”
Election day is Nov. 8.
Read related Tribune coverage here:
- Lujan becomes the 99th Republican in the Texas House, one short of a supermajority, but will need to win again in the March primary and November general election to serve in the 2017 legislature.
- A new wave of campaign finance reports is bringing into focus how competitive some state legislatives races are.