Unusual Special Election In Texas Breeds Speculation

To Democrats, a recent federal court ruling that forced the redrawing of several congressional districts in Texas was the final retribution against Republicans, who three years ago had engineered the state's political map to guarantee their dominance in Washington.

For Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-TX., one of the handful of Texas Republicans who are negatively affected by this recent ruling, it is probably the most extraordinary but not unwinnable challenge in his nearly 15 years in office.

"We managed to win every election, except for one, by more than 20 points or so," he told FOXNews.com recently. Despite the latest alteration of the District to incorporate more Hispanic voters who typically vote Democrat, he doesn't think that will be a problem.

"The response we're receiving across the district," said the seven-term incumbent, "is more positive than we've ever had before. I think we will surprise people in the end with the margin we have in November."

But Democrats and political analysts say the district is now in play for the opposition, where last year, Bonilla was re-elected by 69 percent under the old map.

"The district has certainly gotten more Democratic," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a Washington-based election tip sheet. "We put it on our list. We're watching it."

In August, a three-judge panel issued a new congressional map, based on a June Supreme Court ruling that charged the GOP-led 2003 redistricting failed to protect minority Hispanic voting rights.

That redistricting, led by the Republican controlled Texas legislature and supported by powerful congressional leaders representing Texas, like former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Bonilla, purged the Texas delegation of many Democratic incumbents in the 2004 election.

Democrats say that before that election, only eight percent of Bonilla's voters in 2002 were Hispanic, compared to 88 percent who were non-Hispanic.

"His support among the Hispanic community has steadily declined," said Amber Moon, spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party. "He does not represent the district in Washington D.C."

The 2003 map took out heavily Hispanic portions of Bonilla’s district, which stretches from San Antonio to West Texas on the border with Mexico. Bigger than any state east of Mississippi River, it is the largest district geographically in Texas and includes middle and upper-income white communities, cities, ranches and very poor border towns.

The new map issued in August adds more Hispanic communities, and makes the district a little more than 50 percent Democratic, according to the Democratic-leaning Lone Star Project, in its analysis of the court ruling.

"It (ruling) was a victory for Texas families and finally, a victory for the practice of democracy," said Adrienne Elrod, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The courts made the right decision, that it (2003 redistricting) was unconstitutional and disenfranchised minorities."

The new configuration also adds a portion of San Antonio that includes Bonilla's hometown, in which his mother still resides.

The judges threw another curveball: there will be a special election, the same day of the Nov. 7 election, meaning there will be no party nominees and anyone can run as long as they made the Aug 25 deadline. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, the two top vote getters will participate in a runoff.

Analysts have suggested that former Texas Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, a Democrat who lost his seat in a nearby district during the 2004 purge, has the most name recognition in the race in his party, but isn't the strongest candidate.

Rodriguez had announced last week that he was dropping out of the race because of financial reasons, according to news reports. But on Friday Rodriguez pulled a 180-degree turn and re-entered the race.

While Bonilla is the only Republican running, giving him an advantage from the outset, several Democrats have registered to run on Nov. 7, including attorney and rancher Lukin Gilliland, educator Rick Bolanos, social worker Augie Beltram, retired fire chief Albert Uresti, Adrian DeLeon and independent Craig Stephens.

Bolanos, who said he’s the only candidate reaching out to the poverty-striken areas along the border in West Texas, said the judges stuck it to Democrats by dictating a special election. "They diluted the Democrats vote, so to speak."

Bolanos had won the Democratic primary to run in the old 23rd district, a nomination now moot. Neverthless, Bolanos said he has been traveling the district to motivate voters to change course in Washington.

"There is a quiet desperation in our district," he said, pointing to a recent study that found El Paso as the third highest poverty rate in the country. He said there were towns along the border with 60 percent unemployment and rampant with drug crime.

Meanwhile, Gilliland has already put $500,000 of his own cash into the campaign. He works and was raised in the San Antonio area, but his home does not reside in the district. But there is no residency requirement in Texas law.

He said he is determined to help bring change to what he said is "a mess" in the country.

"A lot of people are joining me in how I feel about this wrong-headed thinking" in Washington, said Gilliand. "They're ready for a change. I think I have the profile and resources and the campaign, my desk is cleared and I'm running low."

This is a race that is not at a loss for speculation. Quietly, some Democrats in Washington and political bloggers say it might take another election cycle to get a strong candidate to beat Bonilla.

Bonilla, on the other hand, seems to be quite confident he will be in Washington next year. He called any insistence that Democrats have the advantage, "just wishful thinking on their parts. They've had this attitude since I first ran for office back in 1992."

The former television reporter has been a stalwart conservative in office, not endearing him to the typically liberal Democratic leanings of most Hispanics on Capitol Hill, or even his own district, for that matter. When he quit the Congressional Hispanic Caucus because he thought it was too partisan in favor of the Democrats, he started the Republican Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

As a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, he has also been able to bring home the bacon for his district. "In my experience, he always delivers results for San Antonio," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-TX, who serves a nearby district that includes other parts of the city. "Voters will remember that in November."