Exclusive: DeLay's First Electoral Test Comes From Republicans

Texas voters go to the polls tomorrow for the nation’s first off-year primary of 2006. Under Texas law, candidates need 50% plus one to win, or else they go to a runoff. Now that the only serious challenger to Gov. Rick Perry (R) has decided to run as an independent, only three races are competitive, all of them contests for nominations to the U.S. House. In all three races, we stand by our earlier predictions.

Texas-22: Rep. Tom DeLay (R) will win this race against two minor-league Republican challengers, the more high-profile of which is Tom Campbell (R). The question is by how much DeLay wins. If he doesn’t win it by more than 20 points, it is a very bad sign for this November. If he wins anything close to two-thirds of the vote, he can puff out his chest and consider himself in excellent shape for the general election contest against former Rep. Nick Lampson (D). Although Democrats can cross over to vote in this primary, they would probably be more likely to vote for DeLay in the hopes that he is convicted later this year. Likely DeLay.

Texas-17: Iraq veteran Van Taylor should easily defeat former Hill staffer Tucker Anderson for the right to face Chet Edwards (D). Anderson‘s allies, who saw their campaign undercut from the beginning, are already in the midst of public recriminations over party members taking Taylor‘s side. If he wins, Taylor will be the only Iraq War veteran running for the House as a Republican challenger this year. Leaning Taylor.

Texas-28: This race between Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) and his political nemesis, former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D), is by far the most interesting race tomorrow. With significant help from unions and far-left groups such as, and behind-the-scenes help from Washington Democrats, Rodriguez has finally raised some money and is attacking Cuellar for his moderate record and his willingness to work with President Bush and Republicans.

Despite the common wisdom, we expect Cuellar to win tomorrow by 10 points. The media has inflated Rodriguez’s real chances without considering several important factors that we believe doom him to a repeat defeat.

1) First, this is an open primary in which voters can request either party’s ballot. Aside from a State Supreme Court race between two Austin-area conservatives, there are no Republican primaries worth voting in — particularly with Carole Keaton Strayhorn (I) out of the GOP primary for governor. This means that Cuellar, a moderate on abortion who supports free trade and gun rights, will get thousands of Republican crossover votes.

2) Second, Rodriguez, during his (just under) four terms of service, became a Washington man, which is partly why he lost to Cuellar in 2004. His district, as drawn prior to 2003, would have been his forever, and that definitely influenced his service in Congress. Cuellar, on the other hand, has worked hard, comparing very favorably when it comes to constituent service. People have noticed this in South Texas.

3) Although Cuellar’s vote for CAFTA has been framed as a talking point against him, free trade is an indisputably positive issue in the 28th district and should actually help him. The district benefits heavily from free trade — NAFTA helped the region’s economic growth. The district houses international port of Laredo, which also happens to be Cuellar’s main base of support.

4) Cuellar’s base in Laredo (Webb County) has a history of turning out to vote, whereas Rodriguez’s base in Bexar County (South San Antonio) has a history of not turning out to vote. Moreover, Rodriguez’s strongest supporters are no longer in the 28th district, having been drawn out in 2003.

This race is an excellent test for understanding the nature of the Hispanic Democratic vote in Texas. Both candidates are incumbents, they came up almost equal in the 2004 primary, and they have vastly different ideological bents. Now they have a rematch in a district that is 65% Hispanic. The question tomorrow is whether the power center of the Democratic Party, represented in ideological terms by Rodriguez, has moved far enough to the Left that it risks alienating culturally conservative, Catholic Hispanic Democrats. It already did so once in 2004, when President Bush carried this district by six points over Massachusetts liberal John Kerry. Leaning Cuellar.