Texas Republicans hope to flip San Antonio-area House seat in Tuesday special election

Roll call is tallied on the House Floor on Aug. 23, 2021

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Texas Republicans are getting to test their new drive to make inroads in South Texas with a special election Tuesday for a vacant state House seat most recently held by a Democrat.

Gov. Greg Abbott and GOP groups have rallied around John Lujan in the five-way race to succeed former state Rep. Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio, hopeful they can at least push Lujan into a runoff and ultimately flip the seat. Lujan, who briefly held the seat in 2016, is up against one other Republican and three Democrats.

It is the first real opportunity that statewide Republicans have to put their money where their mouths are after President Joe Biden underperformed across South Texas last year, creating new pick-up opportunities in the predominantly Hispanic region.

“We’re taking an offensive in South Texas, and this is the first stop for Republicans in the 2022 cycle as we continue to reach out to South Texas voters,” said Aaron De Leon, vice president of the Associated Republicans of Texas, which supports Lujan.

Democrats are working to show they will not be upset — a feeling they know all too well in special elections in this part of the state. The state Democratic Party has not endorsed in the race but has called all three of its candidates “strong” and held a weeklong series of phone banks to turn out its voters.

“We are not taking any chances — and going all out to make sure this seat remains Democratic,” Hannah Roe Beck, co-executive director of the state Democratic Party, said in a news release Wednesday.

The party issued another news release Thursday that blasted the Republican candidates, with Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa saying they “seem hellbent on dragging San Antonio back into the past.”

Recent election results in the district suggest Republicans could still have an uphill battle, even with the shifting political currents in South Texas. Biden carried the district by 14 percentage points last year, not much different than Hillary Clinton’s margin there in 2016. Pacheco won reelection last year by an even bigger margin.

Republicans are undeterred, though, and campaign finance reports released this week confirmed it. As of Friday, Lujan had reported $244,000 in contributions, including $158,000 in in-kind donations — more than double all of the Democratic candidates’ fundraising combined. Lujan was helped by hefty donations from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the deep-pocketed tort reform group, and Texans for Responsible Government, a new political action committee funded by Hill Country GOP megadonors Michael and Mary Porter. Lujan's in-kind contributions included $21,000 in polling from the campaign of House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who Lujan has said encouraged him to run.

Lujan is a familiar face in the district, which is anchored in the South Side of San Antonio — and has been a hub of political volatility in recent years. Lujan unexpectedly flipped the seat in a special election runoff in January 2016, defeating Democrat Tomas Uresti, only to lose the regular general election to Uresti months later. Pacheco then knocked out Uresti in the 2018 Democratic primary for the seat. Lujan ran again that year, and Pacheco easily beat him in November.

For the current contest, Lujan said he is working hard to turn out Republicans but also “hitting a lot of Democrats” and “talking to [them] almost every day.”

“I do have to have people crossing over and saying, ‘You know what? Let’s not put party politics in this and let’s support John,” said Lujan, who highlighted his background as a longtime firefighter and former deputy in the Bexar County sheriff’s office.

“The big thing is, I have experience in public safety and even down here, the Hispanic community ... is tight,” Lujan added. “That’s why it’s an easy sell when we get to talking — they realize I’m very pro-God, I’m pro-family, I’m pro-business and I’m pro-respect for our law enforcement, and I think we’ve lost that.”

The 2020 Republican nominee for the seat, Adam Salyer, is the other GOP candidate in the special election. He has not filed a campaign finance report, but his endorsements include Allen West, the former Texas GOP chairman who is now challenging Abbott in the primary. Salyer is more directly appealing to supporters of former President Donald Trump, campaigning in a “Make D-118 Great Again” hat, and boasts a more unabashedly conservative platform, calling for the elimination of property taxes.

Pacheco gave up the seat to take a job at San Antonio College, but was also facing the threat of primary opposition after voting for permitless carry of handguns during the regular legislative session earlier this year. Two of the Democratic candidates in the special election, Katie Farias and Desi Martinez, had already been making moves to run against Pacheco before he announced his resignation plans.

The third Democrat on the ballot, Frank Ramirez, has the endorsement of Pacheco, as well as a range of others, including Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the Texas Organizing Project and Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, a new progressive member of the San Antonio City Council. Ramirez most recently was zoning and planning director for another council member and before that he was chief of staff to Uresti.

At 27, Ramirez is emphasizing the generational change he would bring to the seat, while also already having extensive experience in public service and deep roots in the district.

“Our vast array of diverse elected officials and organizations really do show that my candidacy in this race is different from the status quo," Ramirez said.

Farias is an elected member of the Southside Independent School District Board of Managers, the daughter-in-law of former HD-118 Rep. Joe Farias and most recently was an aide to San Antonio state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who has endorsed her. She also has the backing of Annie’s List, the state group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.

Farias said the biggest issues she is campaigning on are two policies that are top of mind for many Texas women right now: Abbott’s ban on mask mandates for public schoolchildren and the new abortion law that bans the procedure at as early as six weeks into pregnancy. She said she respects her Democratic opponents, but “when it comes to this particular war on women and war on children, I don’t hear them coming out as passionately about it as I am.”

“I believe women are going to be the most powerful voices in this campaign,” Farias said.

Lujan supports Abbott’s prohibition on mask requirements and the new abortion law. He said he is a “pro-life candidate and I’m not ashamed of that.”

But Lujan also holds a position less common in his party — support for Medicaid expansion. He said he is for it as long as the state can ensure it does not benefit illegal immigrants.

To the extent that the Democratic candidates have focused on their GOP opposition, Lujan has been the target. In a video that Farias posted to social media last week, she brings up Lujan and ties him to Abbott over policies she said “take rights away from women.”

Farias is not the only Democrat in the race using the governor as a foil. Martinez, a trial lawyer, has centered his platform on the electrical grid failure that struck Texas last winter, blaming Abbott for not doing enough to prevent another blackout. His campaign website says he "will fight the brokers in Austin that are only taking care of their profits, and he will fight the Governor to make electricity a priority."

Abbott is supporting Lujan, though the endorsement has been carefully managed. As early voting began earlier this week, Lujan’s campaign quietly launched a Facebook ad in which Abbott says he is endorsing Lujan, calling him a “proven leader who will work with both parties” on jobs, health care and natural disaster mitigation.

Abbott may have limited appeal in the district. Lujan lost the seat in 2016 despite an election-eve rally with Abbott, the governor lost the district by 7 percentage points in his 2018 reelection campaign and his statewide approval numbers have been at their lowest lately.

Still, the Democratic candidates Tuesday are taking the GOP threat seriously, scarred by past special-election upsets in the San Antonio area like Lujan’s initial victory and the 2018 contest that sent Pleasanton Republican Pete Flores to the state Senate. Farias said she is “concerned because we’ve seen specials before” like this one.

“I think that we’re putting in enough work to prevent that from happening,” Ramirez said of a possible GOP upset. “We’re confident that we’re working hard enough to stave off any potential one-and-done election for Mr. Lujan.”

Disclosure: San Antonio College and Texans for Lawsuit Reform have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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