Sunday, March 4, 2012

Speculation Of A New Member Joining HRC

South Texas Legislator Could Join List of Democrats
Who've Turned Republican in District Tailored for GOP

Republicans Says Freshman Democrat Could Be on Verge of Party Switch
in Wake of Court Alterations that Give GOP Slight Edge in Coastal District

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

South Texas Republicans are speculating that the GOP could pick up a state House seat within the next week if a Democratic incumbent switches parties as some say he might be prepared to do in a district that no longer has a majority of voters who are Democrats.

Key Republicans say that Democratic State Rep. J.M. Lozano began making calls about a possible partisan conversion this week after a federal court redesigned House District 43 into a seat that the GOP thinks it has a good chance to win at the polls this year.

But James Aldrete, who's been Lozano's chief campaign consultant as the leader of the Austin-based firm Message Audience & Presentation, told Capitol Inside on Saturday morning that the lawmaker hasn't mentioned anything about a possible party switch in conversations they've had since the court made the new map public on Tuesday.

Aldrete - the leading Democratic strategist in Texas in races in heavily Hispanic areas - acknowledged that the HD 43 race would be competitive as a result of the court changes. But Aldrete also suggested that Lozano could face potential problems as a Republican candidate that he wouldn't encounter as a Democrat.

Despite a lack of any advance warning, one Republican has already entered the HD 43 race and at least one other GOP loyalist is seriously considering a bid for the seat in a primary election that will be held less than 13 weeks from now. Portland architect Bill T. Wilson III filed Friday as a candidate for Lozano's seat - and Beeville oil firm owner Clark Welder has indicated that he may be running in the Republican primary in HD 43 as well.

There's been speculation that Republican State Rep. Raul Torres of Corpus Christi might consider moving across the bay to San Patricio County so he could seek a second term in HD 43. Torres' district was dismantled by the court in a move that left him paired with Republican State Rep. Connie Scott of Corpus Christi in a district that leans slightly Democratic on the new map.

But some Republicans in the Corpus Christi area say that Torres might opt to challenge Democratic State Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen instead of running for a new term in tne House in Scott's current district. Former Texas House Democrat Abel Herrero plans to push forward with a bid to unseat Scott in a rematch two years after she knocked him out of the lower chamber.

But former state House member Solomon Ortiz Jr. apparently has decided against a comeback bid in 2012 after losing two years ago to Torres. Ortiz, a former Nueces County Democratic chairman whose father had a long career in Congress until falling short in his re-election bid as well in 2010, had filed to run against Torres before the federal court eliminated the district they've both represented.

Lozano - a freshman lawmaker who ousted an embattled incumbet in the Democratic primary election two years ago - had moved from Kingsville to Alice after the same three-judge panel in San Antonio removed his former home base of Kleberg County from HD 43 and replaced it with Jim Wells County on the initial map that it drew for the lower chamber last fall.

The Legislature last year had drawn Lozano's district in a way that would have made it slightly more Democratic than it is now - but HD 43 emerged on the first court plan as more of a swing seat that the incumbent would still have been favored to win after relocating his residence so he could run there again.

But the San Antonio court - in arguably the biggest surprise move on the interim legislative and congressional maps that it issued five days ago - reconfigured HD 43 as a district with a slight GOP tilt by chopping off a strip of South Texas that reached into Cameron County and adding San Patricio and Bee counties in its place.

While Democrats will expect to register several net gains this fall on the House map that's being put in place for the May 29 primary election, they'd be starting out in a deeper hole than they are now in a chamber where the GOP has a 101-49 edge if Lozano decides to file to run for re-election as a Republican.

Candidates and potential contenders for the Legislature and Congress have six more days to revise campaign applications or to submit them if they haven't already filed in the initial filing period last year. The deadline for filing or altering applications is Friday at 6 p.m.

Lozano, who owns several restaurants in South Texas, would become the second South Texas legislator in the past 15 months to jump from the Democratic Party to the GOP if he decides to make the move. State Rep. Aaron Peña of Edinburg switched to the Republican Party a month after winning a fifth term as a Democrat in 2010. But the court in San Antonio rejected a move by Republican lawmakers to protect Peña and left him in a district where he would appear to have no chance to win on the GOP ticket.

The newly-designed version of HD 43 appears more ripe for a Republican takeover on the new court map than any of the other House districts where Democrats currently hold seats. Voters backed Republicans between 51 percent and 54 percent of the time in statewide races in recent years based on several different methods for measuring partisan voting trends. But almost 60 percent of the voting age population in the new HD 43 is Hispanic - and the ideal candidate on paper as a result could be a Hispanic Republican.

A significant number of Lozano's current constituents live in a swath of the Rio Grande Valley that includes South Padre Island. But Lozano has been viewed as a relatively independent lawmaker with a voting record that was more conservative than some of his colleagues in an area that's the last remaining Democratic stronghold in Texas outside El Paso and parts of major urban areas with high concentrations of Hispanics and African-Americans.

The list of former Texas House Democrats who are serving now as Republicans includes State Reps. Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville and Allan Ritter of Nederland. But Ritter and Hopson represent East Texas districts where they probably couldn't have survived a GOP tidal wave that swept Republicans to their first House supermajority in 2010 and victories in races for every seat that had been held by Democrats in rural areas.

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