SAN ANTONIO – Coming soon to the nearly 600-mile wide congressional district stretching from San Antonio to El Paso is a lively U.S. House race that will command national attention and millions of dollars in political ads and attacks.
But not just yet.
That's because Republican U.S. Rep. Francisco Canseco still doesn't know who the Democratic opponent will be this November: Ciro Rodriguez, a twice-ousted congressman trying to reclaim the 23rd district or longtime state lawmaker Pete Gallego.
A July 31 runoff will decide the party nominee for one of the closest-watched congressional races in the country. The swing district, the largest along the border in the nation, narrowly went to Canseco in 2010, and Democrats want it back to pick up the 25 seats they need to recapture control of Congress.
The national Democratic establishment had bet on Gallego. Donors did, too, arming the popular state House member from tiny Alpine with a steep fundraising edge over Rodriguez. Gallego outspent his rival by nearly 9-to-1 heading into the May primary.
Yet it wasn't enough: Rodriguez captured 46 percent of the primary vote, and Gallego 41.
"I'm a much better underdog," said Gallego, who has shaken up his campaign staff since the primary.
Rodriguez's comeback momentum includes the endorsement of the third Democrat who ran in the primary, San Antonio businessman John Bustamante, who setup the runoff after siphoning the 13 percent of the vote.
"I fight the machine. Most of the time I've been outspent," Rodriguez said. "I have to keep moving forward. I feel good in the runoff, but I'd feel better if I'd won it outright."
For as heated as the general election campaign figures to unfold — especially if the 2010 race for the district was any indication — Gallego and Rodriguez have largely stayed out of each other's way. Rodriguez sounded proud while insisting he was not even discussing Gallego in his third run for Congress, saying Canseco is the only opponent he brings up with voters.
But he's been forced to play defense. The biggest ad during the primary was a $100,000 spot from the League of Conservation Voters attacking Rodriguez for his 2009 vote against President Barack Obama's energy bill, and the environmental political action committee spent nearly another six figures on anti-Rodriguez mailers.
Rodriguez still defends that vote, saying it's not about doing away with coal but diversifying the nation's energy portfolio.
Gallego lobs his own criticism at Rodriguez, calling him part of a broken system in Washington and saying the vast district that borders Mexico needs a stronger voice to weigh in on illegal immigration. He also said that if Rodriguez wins the nomination, Canseco and the GOP can simply trot out the same ads used to help defeat him in the 2010 campaign, when both sides combined to spend more than $3 million.
Most widely circulated by conservatives was amateur video showing Rodriguez angrily whacking a restaurant table with a folded newspaper after a woman challenged him on health care during at a constituent event. Rodriguez disavowed the exchange two years ago as cynical "baiting tactic" and apologized for losing temper, but Gallego said the clip isn't going away.
"It's just as offensive today as it was two years ago," Gallego said.
Democrats hold nine of the 32 congressional seats in Texas. They're poised to add two more next years because of the four new seats awarded to Texas based on the state's population, but they'll split the other half with Republicans.
Next door to the 23rd in El Paso, voters have already shown an appetite for new Democratic blood. Eight-term congressman Silvestre Reyes was ousted by former city councilman Beto O'Rourke in a nasty Democratic primary race. Gallego bills himself as the only candidate in the district who can unite rural West Texas and urban San Antonio. After carrying the West Texas counties he's represented in the statehouse for 20 years in the primary, he says the path for a runoff victory is easier for him.
"There's no room for him to grow. He's not going to grow in West Texas," Gallego said. "For me, there's plenty of room."
Rodriguez disputes that — and any perception that he doesn't have the backing of other Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats' official campaign arm, added Gallego in January to its list of "Red to Blue" races. Rodriguez, however, didn't settle on which district where he would run until a federal court in February handed down new state voting maps.
Rodriguez, who plays up his experience and seniority in Washington, said commitments were made before he landed back in the 23rd. The party will back whichever nominee emerges, and Rodriguez predicts another close general election like 2010 with hopes that Democrats will get a boost in a presidential year.
"The last time the wind blowing in front of us. When all is said and done come in November, I don't know if the wind is going to be in front of us or behind us," Rodriguez said. "That can make all the difference in the world."