Ballot counters, judges and others are still sifting several House races to discover who won, but in Texas and Louisiana voters have yet to make their final decisions. It is up to them whether the lone Mexican-American Republican in Congress and an embattled Democrat will return to Washington in January.
Reps. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) and William Jefferson (D-La.) are headed for runoffs after failing to get half the vote on Election Day, and the fate of both could depend on dynamics related to redistricting and Hurricane Katrina, respectively.
Bonilla will face Democratic former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez on a yet-to-be-determined date after securing 48.6 percent of the vote last week. Jefferson, the subject of a bribery investigation — federal agents allegedly found $90,000 in marked cash stashed in his freezer — managed just 30 percent of the vote in a crowded field and will face Democrat Karen Carter on Dec. 9.
Incumbents who fail to avoid a runoff are generally considered to be in trouble, but Bonilla has a substantial financial advantage and Jefferson, despite his legal woes and poor general election showing, isn’t being counted out yet.
Bonilla didn’t have a race on his hands until the U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that his 23rd District was illegally redrawn in 2003 because it weakened the minority vote. A district he won with 69 percent of the tally two years ago suddenly became competitive again.
The ruling also moved Rodriguez, who lost a primary in March to Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) in the neighboring 28th District, into the new 23rd. Rodriguez and five other Democrats combined to garner 100 more votes than Bonilla (out of 125,000 cast), while an Independent came away with about 3 percent of the vote.
Rodriguez gained the runoff with 20 percent, largely on the strength of name recognition as a former four-term congressman. But he enters the runoff penniless.
He briefly dropped out of the race in August, citing financial and other problems, only to return days later. He had raised just more than half a million dollars by late October and is banking on lots of help from the national party.
Still, his campaign is projecting optimism. “Congressman Bonilla keeps saying that he only needs one percent,” Rodriguez spokeswoman Gina Castaneda said. “It’s a whole new ballgame; he needs 50 percent plus one.”
Bonilla, meanwhile, conserved his resources and has plenty left for the runoff. He raised more than $3 million and had almost $2 million left as of Oct. 18.
The race is Bonilla’s to lose thanks to his money and the probable turnout in San Antonio-based Bexar County, said Larry Hufford, a political science professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
Hufford said he expects turnout in heavily Republican northwest Bexar to carry Bonilla to victory, while the south side of San Antonio, which is vital to Rodriguez, doesn’t generally show up for runoffs.
“The Democrats really want it, but Ciro Rodriguez has lost the last two congressional races to Henry Cuellar because south Bexar County did not turn out in high numbers,” Hufford said, referring to Rodriguez’s primary losses to centrist Cuellar in 2004 and this year.
Emulating a number of Republicans, Bonilla plans to attack Rodriguez, a liberal, by linking him to presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and the Democratic Party’s left wing.
Bonilla was quoted calling Pelosi a “socialist” in the San Antonio Express-News after the general election. “I think everyone needs to know the lay of the land,” Bonilla told The Hill. “If we have something in common, we haven’t found it yet.”
The political differences aren’t as easily decipherable in the case of Jefferson and Carter, both black Democrats in a predominantly black New Orleans district. But Jefferson’s ethical troubles have driven a wedge through the district.
Carter, who took 22 percent of the vote last week, is hoping for the endorsements of the other candidates who opposed Jefferson, including Republican Joe Lavigne and Democrats Derrick Shepherd and Troy Carter.
Karen Carter is eyeing Jefferson Parish, the portion of the district located outside New Orleans, which went heavily for Shepherd, a resident. She has met Jefferson Parish officials and expects some of them to endorse her this week. The parish accounted for about a third of voters last week.
The campaign has dealt with a primary attack keying on Carter’s comments about the parish in Spike Lee’s recent HBO documentary on Hurricane Katrina, titled “When the Levees Broke.” In the film, the state legislator sharply criticized Jefferson Parish law enforcement officers for blocking fleeing New Orleans residents from crossing the Crescent City Connection into the parish.
Carter took just eight percent of the vote in the parish last week and appears to have her work cut out for her. Sheriffs are powerful in Louisiana, and Jefferson Sheriff Harry Lee is reportedly considering using his resources against her.
Her campaign said the attacks were motivated by opponents who saw her as the strongest candidate to make the runoff and wanted one of their own to challenge Jefferson.
“I’ve extended the olive branch and I’ve done all the outreach that I can possibly do to let folks know that that round is over and we have to move forward together if we’re going to get anything done positive for this region,” Carter said.
Pearson Cross, assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, said Jefferson Parish officials and Shepherd might choose not to back Carter because Jefferson could face indictment if he returns to Congress, creating an opening potentially filled by a parish resident.
Cross said a victory by the congressman, whose campaign did not return calls seeking comment, wouldn’t surprise him, given the state’s penchant for electing less-than-reputable characters. But Cross said it is perhaps too late for Jefferson to expect black voters to rally around him out of racial solidarity.
“Unless he really can move heaven and earth, I think that people have reduced incentive in going out and voting for him,” Cross said.