After just barely missing an outright election victory in the Nov. 7 election, Bonilla lost the runoff thanks to an energized Democratic base, a million-dollar campaign infusion from the Democratic Party and a call to arms by President Clinton, who came to San Antonio to campaign for Rodriguez. The victory underlined the popularity of both Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Lone Star State, and could even enhance Hillary's prospects in the 2008 presidential race. "Bill and Hilary are both popular in South Texas that's a given," said former Democratic Party staffer and political analyst Andy Hernandez.
Clinton came into San Antonio for a last-minute rally after internal polls showed Rodriguez was closing fast. "It all happened so quickly, we started to smell it," Hernandez said. Bonilla had 48.6% of the vote in the Nov. 7 election, which pitted the incumbent against six Democrats and an independent. Rodriguez was second with just 20%. Yet Rodriguez beat Bonilla by 10% in Tuesday's runoff. "I was stunned by the margin of defeat," said Royal Masset, a longtime Republican consultant and analyst, "A lot of us thought there was no way Henry could lose."
Bonilla's defeat was made more likely after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that tossed out a district drawn under the influence of former Republican leader Tom DeLay that was favorable to the Republicans. A three-judge federal panel redrew Bonilla's district and, while it still leaned Republican, it added a swath of the south side of San Antonio, a heavily Democratic area. The panel called for a special election to fill the seat on Nov. 7, Election Day, but Texas election law stipulates if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in a special election, the top two vote-getters face off.
Rodriguez is a liberal Democrat who voted against the Iraq war, against banning same-sex marriage, for partial birth abortion and for a boost in the minimum wage. Rodriguez had served seven years in Congress before losing his seat in the neighboring 28th congressional district in 2004 after DeLay's redistricting plan anchored the district in Laredo, away from Rodriguez's home base in San Antonio. The new district favored Laredo resident and conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar, who beat Rodriguez by just 58 votes in the primary. Rodriguez challenged incumbent Congressman Cuellar again this year in the March primary and used a picture of President Bush hugging Cuellar to try to turn the vote his way, but he lost again. Early in this latest campaign, he waffled about staying in the race and was viewed as a long shot to defeat Bonilla, a powerful member of the House Appropriations Committee with a $1.6 million campaign war chest.
In a region where "government is the economy," Hernandez said, Bonilla had been able to parlay his seat on the appropriations committee into a sizable campaign war chest and a powerful platform. The district stretches from El Paso east to San Antonio and south to the Mexican border, embracing several cities with large military bases and poor, rural counties where federal programs are vital. But once the power shifted away from Republicans in the House, in Hernandez's view, independent voters pragmatically voted for Rodriguez.
The Republican defeat in November's midterm election "energized the Democratic base," Hernandez said. "The focus was back on us Democrats, and for two or three weeks we were the top of the news every day." Republicans, meanwhile, may have been demoralized and failed to show up at the polls. Rodriguez defeated Bonilla more than two to one in early voting in San Antonio, evidence that the vaunted Republican get-out-the-vote effort fell short, Masset said. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pumped "about a million dollars into the race," according to Hernandez. Labor unions and grassroots volunteers also worked the campaign.
Some national pundits have suggested that immigration was a key factor in the race, since Bonilla's vote for a 700-mile border fence was not popular among the district's Hispanic voters. But Hernandez attributes the victory more to the Democrats' national wave of enthusiasm, buttressed by party organization and money. Still, the result could signal a swing in support among the state's Hispanic voters away from the Republicans. "We are blowing it with Hispanics," said Masset, arguing that the Republican leadership "have been focusing on Terri Schiavo, one white woman, rather than the 12 million Hispanics living and working here."
But the defeat may also have been the result of Republican complacency. While the party brought in George P. Bush, the President's nephew, whose mother is Mexican, to campaign for Bonilla, few other of the state's big Republican names helped out largely because Bonilla was considered a sure winner. "Maybe it was hubris," said Masset. "We were caught at the starting gate, we fell asleep at the wheel."