Given the utter lack of competition in Texas, political observers in the state are forced to examine characteristics other than competition to find “interesting” races this year. The state’s 27th Congressional District is in the running simply for its location in the state, its demographic makeup, and its incumbent.
Republican U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold is running against Wesley Reed, a Democrat who has never sought political office. Farenthold was part of the tea party class of 2010, when he won by just 775 votes over 14-term incumbent Solomon Ortiz.
According to the latest Cook Report ratings for U.S. House races, Montana, which elects one person to the House, has as many “competitive” races as the state of Texas, which has 36 seats. Cook, incidentally, rates Texas’ 27th District race as “Solid Republican.” In 2012, Mitt Romney got 61 percent of the vote in the district to Barack Obama’s 38 percent. At the same time, Farenthold won by 18 points.
If the electorate in 2014 is supposed to be even more Republican, and Barack Obama is supposed to be even less popular in the district, how is it possible that Texas’ 27th District is “interesting”? At least four factors make this race one of the most interesting races in Texas.
First, the competition for “interesting” in Texas isn’t particularly strong. Only one of 36 incumbents opted to give up his House seat. Steve Stockman chose to run against Sen. John Cornyn in the Republican primary rather than run for re-election to his House seat. One other Texas incumbent, Ralph Hall, was defeated in his primary. Romney did even better in both of those districts.
Although most political scientists would consider Farenthold’s 18-point victory margin fairly substantial, it was the third lowest in the state. The other Republicans in the state won their districts by an average of 40 points.
Second, if it wasn’t for the adoption of a Republican redistricting map, this race very well could have been the most interesting race in the state. The district where Farenthold beat Ortiz was 73 percent Hispanic. After the 2010 redistricting cycle, the district is now just 51 percent Hispanic.
Farenthold is the closest Texas House Republican to the Texas-Mexico border and has been an opponent of immigration reform, suggesting that the Senate-passed bill (that had 14 Republican votes) “doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell in the House of Representatives.”
Third, Farenthold isn’t what you would call a formidable incumbent. While Reed, according to a June 30 campaign finance report, had only $114,484 in cash on hand, the incumbent had only $419,900. Although six of his fellow Texas Republican incumbents have even less cash on hand, their opponents have a combined total of $18,175. Furthermore, in his four-year career, he has only sponsored one successful bill. Having flirted both with “birtherism” and with a scantily dressed woman while wearing pajamas during his initial run, Farenthold has recently been targeted by comedian Bill Maher in his effort to “Flip a District,” though he “lost” in the semifinals to Congressman John Kline of Minnesota.
Finally, the voters in the 27th District do not have an easy job. They must balance their ethnicity, their ideology, and their partisanship in choosing between a “colorful” incumbent and a challenger who will be tied to the unpopular policies of the Obama administration. Furthermore, they will have to balance their distaste for Obamacare, even while more than 20 percent of them lack health insurance, and the complications of a stalled immigration reform bill while a crisis festers at a border fewer than 200 miles away.
Perhaps if it weren’t the midterm of a second-term president who is unpopular in the district; perhaps if it weren’t the currently configured, but rather, the pre-redistricted district; perhaps if the economy were doing better or if foreign crises dissipated, Reed would have a chance. As it is, the only reason that the race is interesting at all is because of Farenthold, who under a different set of circumstances could very well be running to save his political life.
Sean Theriault is a professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin. He is an expert in party polarization in elections and voter retribution.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) September 17, 2014