The aggressive drive by top Texas Republicans to flip a Democratic-friendly state Senate seat will culminate Tuesday as their candidate, Pete Flores, faces Democrat Pete Gallego in the final round of a special election.
The runoff for Senate District 19 will determine the successor to former state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who resigned earlier this year after 11 felony convictions. But the contest also has implications for the balance of power in the upper chamber, where the GOP is heading into the November elections with a tenuous hold on their supermajority.
As a result, GOP leaders have lined up behind Flores, a former state game warden who unsuccessfully challenged Uresti in 2016, and in some cases, activated their own campaign machinery to help him against Gallego. The Democrat is a former congressman from Alpine who previously represented the area for over two decades in the Texas House.
The GOP believes the all-hands-on-deck effort has put the seat within reach.
"We feel good about where we are," Flores strategist Matt Mackowiak said. "If Republicans turn out on Tuesday, we will win and elect a conservative from SD-19 to the Texas Senate."
Democrats have also mobilized, well aware of the GOP heavyweights on the other side and the anything-can-happen nature of special elections.
"This is a Democratic district, we expect it to perform like a Democratic district, but we cannot take anything for granted and that's why we're working hard," said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.
Five days of early voting for the runoff wrapped up Friday in SD-19 — which stretches from San Antonio's east side to far West Texas, covering a large swath of the Texas-Mexico border in between.
The first round of the special election was July 31, and Flores finished a surprisingly strong first in the eight-way race, riding a late wave of support from a who’s who of GOP leaders including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and both of the state's U.S. senators. Second place went to Gallego, who spent much of the first round battling state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, in a more crowded Democratic field.
Despite Flores' late surge, Democrats took heart in the fact that their party easily outvoted the GOP on July 31, with their four candidates combining for 59 percent and the three Republican contenders netting 40 percent. Republicans contend the math will be different Tuesday because Flores is running a much better-funded campaign and district-wide awareness of the race has grown now that it is a one-to-one matchup.
After the first round, Republicans moved quickly against Gallego, alleging he was ineligible to run for the seat because he did not live in the district as required by law. In the days following the July 31 contest, the Texas GOP filed a lawsuit aimed at removing Gallego from the runoff ballot, an ultimately unsuccessful effort. More recently, the party submitted an FBI complaint also related to the residency dispute.
In the runoff, the endorsement from Patrick, the Senate president, has turned out to be particularly fruitful for Flores. Patrick has funneled $172,000 to Flores’ campaign, almost all of it in the form of in-kind donations for polling, mail and ads. Patrick’s largesse made up more than half of the $307,000 that Flores raised during the most recent reporting period, which was roughly $60,000 short of Gallego's haul.
In addition to Patrick's assistance, Abbott has cut a digital ad with Flores and mobilized his campaign's ground troops for the race.
On the radio, Flores has aired spots that focus on Gallego's voting records in Austin and Washington, D.C., claiming the former legislator "loves new taxes." The ads also slam him as a "career politician" for his long tenure in elected life and attempt to tie him to Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic congressional leader loathed by Republicans. Flores has also been on TV in the runoff.
More recently, Gallego's campaign responded with a radio ad of its own, saying it's "sad when Austin politicians sink to personal attacks — like Republican Pete Flores attacking Pete Gallego."
"We know Pete, trust him," a narrator says in the 30-second spot. "These days, when politics is full of indictments, false charges, you want a guy you can trust."
The radio ad echoes a case that Gallego has been making since the July 31 election — that he would be a steady hand for the district after the tumult that dogged Uresti. Uresti stepped down in June after being found guilty of 11 felonies, including fraud and money laundering, all stemming from his involvement with FourWinds Logistics, a now-defunct oilfield services company found to have perpetrated a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors.
The winner Tuesday will get to finish Uresti's term, which is up in 2020. Turnout is expected to be low, and Garcia said his party is "always concerned when fewer people vote." He accused Abbott of making a "deliberate, discriminatory choice" by setting the SD-19 special election for late summer while putting the contests to address other legislative vacancies on the November ballot. (An Abbott spokesperson pointed to the governor's proclamation for the SD-19 special election, which said it was urgent to fill Uresti's seat because his legal troubles left the district "without effective representation ... for over a year.")
A Flores victory would give Senate Republicans some breathing room as they enter the November election season with as many as three of their seats in play — and their ability to bring up legislation without Democratic support on the line. To Flores supporters, the stakes are clear.
"This is a statewide race now," said Marian Knowlton, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee from SD-19. "This is not just a Senate district — because we’ve got every major Republican player behind him."
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday in SD-19.