Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Special Elections: AZ-08 Today, TX-27... Sometime


After he was caught in a sex-and-payoff scandal, Blake Farenthold intended to serve out his term and not run for reelection. Instead he was forced to resign from Congress in disgrace.

TX-27 s a very gerrymandered district that took a Hispanic-based Democratic district and made it Republican. In 2004, TX-27 was 68.1% Hispanic and the only congressman it had ever known was Democrat Solomon Ortiz. It included Cameron County (84% Hispanic) and Brownsville way in the south. In the 2003 midterm redisticting, Cameron County was removed and put into the 15th and Republican parts of Kingsville County north of Corpus Christi were added. The district had voted, albeit narrowly, for Gore over Bush. Now the district has an R+13 PVI and Trump beat Hillary 60.1% to 36.5%. The district is still centered on Corpus Christi and Nueces County (where Trump and Hillary were virtually tied, 48.8% to 47.2%, about a thousand votes) but the whole southern part of the district is gone and Republican suburbs up northeast of Austin have been grafted onto it. TX-27 is now rated "safe Republican"-- like PA-18 was.

Yesterday, two things happened. First, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about overturning a lower court's decision to ungerrymander the state, and, second, political reporter Patrick Svitek broke the news at the Texas Tribune that Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have decided to call a special election to replace Farenthold before November. That's dangerous for the Texas GOP but they said they want to do it because the district is still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

What is even more interesting though is that "CD-27 is among several districts that are the focus of a case that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. Plaintiffs in the case argue that the districts were created in a way that discriminates against minorities and should be redrawn. A lower court agreed, and the high court is hearing Texas' appeal. It's not immediately clear how a Supreme Court ruling against Texas would affect special election plans."

A week ago Abby Livingston wrote an interesting post for the Tribune, In 2010, Blake Farenthold beat a Texas Democrat who seemed invincible. Will a Republican face the same fate in 2018?. It was the red wave but no one expected Solomon Ortiz, who had represented the 27th since it was created, to be beaten. He spent $1,244,876 (including $103,730 of his own cash) to Farenthold's measly $627,531 (including $152,357 from his own purse). The only significant outside expenditure was from a right-wing group, the 60 Plus Association which put $156,260 in against Ortiz. The DCCC never contested the district again... just wrote it off entirely (a DCCC specialty). Back to 2010:
On Oct. 10, Texas Monthly made public the question that had been floating in the air in South Texas and in Washington, D.C. for days: “Is Solomon Ortiz in trouble?”

"Word on the street in Corpus Christi is that Farenthold has an 8 point lead in the district," longtime political reporter Paul Burka wrote.

Two days later, Ortiz donated $95,000 of his personal money to his campaign and soon began airing television advertisements.

In a week’s time, the incumbent who once skated to re-election had to scramble to pull together a modern campaign. The same scenario was happening elsewhere in the country, as the Republican riptide suddenly appeared poised to pull under powerful Democratic House members in places like Missouri and South Carolina.

“If you haven’t had a race in 10 years, there’s a lot of atrophy that happens,” said [Democratic strategist C.R.] Wooters. “If you’re not careful, it can really get you.”

But there was something else that neither Ortiz nor national Democrats anticipated that would make the scramble that much harder: the newly-invented super PAC. Early in 2010, the Supreme Court made a ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC case that allowed for the creation of political entities that can collect and spend unlimited sums in federal campaigns.

Republican strategists quickly created an infrastructure of such groups. Democrats lagged far behind, and the party's candidates bore the brunt of Republican attack ads that fall.

While Farenthold didn't have gangbusters fundraising in his own right, Republican outside groups spent about $160,000 in a cheap South Texas media market to attack Ortiz.

But there was one last factor that Ortiz's camp and the DCCC assumed would be their last bit of re-election insurance: Farenthold’s pajamas.

Democratic operatives far and wide pushed a photo of Farenthold posing in duck-print pajamas at a charity event next to a scantily-clad young woman. Local and national media outlets ran with it. Surely, the Democrats thought, voters would think twice about a candidate who had appeared in such a photo.

They were dead wrong.

“There didn't seem to be any sort of drop in the engagement of his potential supporters and voters,” an Ortiz staffer told the Tribune.

And that's the point of the wave metaphor. No matter how how weak or strong of a swimmer the contenders are, a powerful enough national sentiment against a party can develop such that even a longtime incumbent can lose control of a race.

The margin on election night was so close that the race went into a recount. But in the end, Farenthold carried the seat by 775 votes. For those who had been closely watching the political map nationally, the outcome was among the most unexpected of the year.

The Republican-controlled state government redrew the state's congressional lines the following year, including a dramatic reframing of Farenthold's 27th District.

Instead of a district that stretched from Farenthold’s base of Corpus Christi down into the Democratic Rio Grande Valley, the district now swung deep into Republican inland counties and reached up to Austin.

Farenthold went on to coast to re-election every two years, even as sexual harassment allegations against his office began to build in late 2014.

But eventually, the situation became politically untenable amid the #MeToo movement last fall. In December, Politico reported that Farenthold had settled a lawsuit from a former staffer with $84,000 in taxpayer money. Faced with a related ethics investigation, he announced his retirement weeks later and then officially resigned from Congress earlier this month. It appears unlikely he will pay that money back.

While he was one of Congress' few experts on software policy, Farenthold never quite shook the duck pajamas image from that first campaign and conceded in his retirement announcement that his political inexperience set the stage for future trouble in his office.

"I'd never served in public office before," Farenthold said in December. "I had no idea how to run a congressional office and, as a result, I allowed a workplace culture to take root in my office that was too permissive and decidedly unprofessional. It accommodated destructive gossip, off-hand comments, off-color jokes and behavior that in general was less than professional."

Democratic activists are downright giddy on social media about the party’s prospects in the fall. The wave emoji has become a common means of conveying the all-but-assumed sweep coming in the fall.

Even among more cold-blooded operatives, the types who have lived through blue waves and red ones, there is indisputable optimism.

Harrison, the GOP operative, remains dubious that a Democratic wave is coming. He argues that U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s unpopularity mitigates the struggles President Trump faces in polling.

But he does concede that the influx of Democratic candidates all over the country, even in seemingly safe Republican seats, is unnerving.

“In normal elections, what happens is you don't even have candidates there,” he said.  To exacerbate the problem, Democratic candidates are raising piles of money, even in Texas, where Republicans hold 24 of the state's 36 U.S. House seats. National Democrats are targeting three Republicans representing districts that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won in 2016-- John Culberson of Houston, Will Hurd of Helotes and Sessions.

Hurd in particular has been a top target for Democrats in the past, as his House district is viewed as the only true swing district in the state. That's also why Hurd started preparing for this year's race soon after he won re-election in 2016.

But that's prompted speculation that other, more complacent Republicans representing districts that would be viewed as rock-solid red in normal election years-- the GOP's own Solomon Ortizes — may now be potential Democratic pick-ups. Such thinking has boosted the Democratic bids of the likes of M.J. Hegar, who is in a runoff to take on U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. Donald Trump won Carter's district by more than 12 points in 2016. Yet Hegar managed to outraise Carter this past quarter.

And so, seven months out from Election Day, Republicans in Washington remain worried, Democrats are optimistic, and Wasserman, the analyst, is displaying a curiosity reminiscent of 2010.

“We just know there's going to be a race like that for Democrats, we just don't know who it's going to be,” he said. “It could be in Texas.”

Today voters in AZ-08, suburbs west and northwest of Phoenix, are going to the polls. Like TX-27, the PVI is R+13. Trump beat Hillary by about the same score by which Trump won in TX-27, 58.1% to 37%. If Democrat Hiral Tipirneni beats Debbie Lesko tonight it gives Eric Holguin or Roy Barrera hope that one of them can beat Republicans Bech Bruun or Michael Cloud-- or whomever winds up running in the specials. Of course if Tipirneni wins tonight, the GOP might as well save their money, pack up and go home.

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At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forget about it, Jake! It's Texas!


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