UVALDE, Texas – Rep. Henry Bonilla is in an unusual position, an incumbent Texas congressman in a new district. More troubling for his re-election effort, some voters see a contradiction in the only Mexican-American in the House belonging to the Republican Party.
"He's forgotten his roots," said Pat Abrego, 47, of San Antonio.
Bonilla clearly bristles at the notion that being a Republican betrays Hispanics.
"There are a lot of people out there ... who think that the color of your skin dictates your political philosophy," Bonilla said. "And that's the greatest insult that you could inflict on any American, regardless of their ethnic background."
Ethnicity is an issue in the campaign for the massive 23rd Congressional District — it stretches from south San Antonio to the Mexican border and west to the eastern edge of El Paso — in part because Texas Republicans made it one.
Bonilla's former district had been drawn in a 2003 redistricting plan engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to improve the chances of GOP candidates. However, courts later ruled that by splitting into two congressional districts Webb County, which includes the 94 percent Hispanic city of Laredo, the plan unfairly diluted Hispanic voting strength.
A Supreme Court decision led to the new district, now without Webb County, and set up a special open election. Bonilla has drawn six challengers, five Democrats and an independent, in a free-for-all grab.
Bonilla's campaign for an eighth term says that his real opponent is a runoff election. If no one pulls more than half of the votes cast, then the top two candidates will face a runoff in December.
"It's clearly Bonilla versus someone else," said Jason Casellas, assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.
Bonilla appeals to many of his constituents as a proponent of small business and rural community development. Recently, at Southwest Texas Junior College, he received a standing ovation and a plaque for his work for rural communities. The $1.9 million in rural development checks he handed out were welcome, too.
Although Bonilla voted to build a border fence to halt illegal immigration — anathema to many border residents — and supports other conservative positions, he likes to tell south Texas residents that he is one of them, "the salt of the earth."
His voting-age constituency is more Hispanic than it was two years ago, 61 percent instead of 51 percent. He disputes research showing that his Hispanic support has declined over the years. Data show it was below 10 percent in the 2002 race, a drop his opponents want to exploit.
"I really believe that the people vote for us and support us based on the premise that we're going to go up there to try to solve problems," said former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, 59, one of those in the race against Bonilla. "I really believe that Bonilla has not done that."
Rodriguez served in Congress from 1997 to 2005. He twice lost in Democratic primaries to Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, in the neighboring 28th District.
Another opponent, San Antonio businessman Lukin Gilliland, is running an ad in the district's major areas that subtly criticizes Bonilla: "We need more of Texas in Washington, not the other way around."
"I think (Bonilla has) betrayed not only Hispanic voters but all voters," Gilliland said. "I think that Henry Bonilla hasn't been looking out for the best interests of any of his constituents."
Charlie Levin, 62, a Hispanic retiree who works part time at night, said he's sticking with Bonilla and that his party isn't a problem "as long as he gets done what he says."
Name recognition may be critical to an outright win. Only Bonilla has the money to keep his name in front of voters. With nearly $2.3 million cash on hand, he is airing ads boasting his support for a program that helps disadvantaged students apply for college.
His many opponents are political paupers in comparison. For example, Rodriguez has just over $17,600 in cash on hand. In recent weeks, he announced plans to drop out of this race because of a lack of funds, then changed his mind. Gilliland, who has poured half a million dollars of his own money into the race, has $33,700 in cash as of Sept. 30.
"How Latinos react in this race is going to be really eye-opening," Casellas said. "If a Hispanic Republican can win, it would be in a place like Texas."