Evans-Novak: Bonilla Blew It
Thu December 14, 2006 9:31 am

The Evans-Novak political report says Henry Bonilla “was at fault in many ways” for his crushing defeat in the 23rd congressional district. The list of misfeasances and my comments:

* “He did not spend enough money to get himself over the 50 percent mark on Election Day [Bonilla got 49%], leaving $1.4 million in his campaign account on November 8. Bonilla had harbored ideas of running for statewide office – possibly a Senate seat if one opened up. The saving of money that could have gotten him the few thousand extra votes he needed … on November 7 proved costly.”

This is pure second-guessing (not that this is anything new for us in the media). Bonilla had every reason to be confident about this race. He started with $2 million in the bank and name recognition in the lightly populated counties west of San Antonio. The shortened campaign due to the August court decision gave Democrats little time to raise money. Rodriguez started out in debt and lacked the will or the skill to raise it. An incumbent should always run scared, but no one except the most loyal Democrats thought that Rodriguez could beat Bonilla.

* “He only turned out 60,000 voters in the first round, just half of what 50 percent equals in many districts in a midterm election. Part of this is because of the number of illegal immigrants in the district, but there were enough votes in the district to put him over the top in the first round.”

Bonilla got 77,000 votes in winning a very close race against Democratic challenger Henry Cuellar in 2002. But the new court-drawn 23rd district was very different from the old district, which had been drawn to Tom DeLay’s specifications by the Texas Legislature. That district, which was knocked down by the U.S. Supreme Court, included Hill Country counties that were solidly Anglo and Republican. The three-judge court that drew the new 23rd lopped off those counties and moved Bonilla from one hotbed of Democratic activism (Laredo) to another (the south side of San Antonio). The new district was much less friendly to a Republican. Indeed, Democrats felt certain that they would win the seat in 2008.

* “But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee carried Rodriguez, a poor candidate in his own right, over the finish line, driving a powerful early-voting operation in advance of the election.”

–This was the whole ball game. Left to his own devices, Rodriguez would have been defeated somewhere close to 60-40. But the DCCC came to San Antonio and took over the Rodriguez campaign. All of a sudden, Bonilla was facing a juggernaut.

* Many Republicans did not think Bonilla could lose and, therefore, failed to help. Bonilla, meanwhile, continued running positive ads for too long after November 7, but then suddenly launched a series of ads that overreached in their extreme negativity, asserting that Rodriguez had ties to Islamic terrorists. Bonilla also focused his entire voter turnout operation on Bexar County, his home base of voters that had saved him from a strong challenge in 2000.”

It was apparent by Election Day that the race was close. SurveyUSA polls (aired on local TV) showed it, and so did coverage in the Express-News. If Republicans failed to turn out, it was due to post-November 7 malaise, not overconfidence. Bonilla’s negative ads served only to provide motivation for Democrats. Was Bonilla wrong to focus on Bexar County for voter turnout? Bexar cast 64% of the votes in the runoff and two-thirds of the early vote. Bonilla could have sent an army of blockwalkers to the western counties and the vastness of West Texas would have swallowed them up. Bonilla lost by 6,083 votes. He would have needed to bring cattle to the polls to close that gap.

* “Bonilla was also slightly harmed, and certainly not helped, by his embrace of the conservative position on the border security and immigration issue. Once again, it proved woefully ineffective in bringing out white voters, and whatever-sized effect it had among Hispanic voters – who make up more than 60 percent of the new district – it was a negative effect. Bonilla lost counties in the second round that he had never lost in any previous election.”

He was more than “slightly” harmed by the immigration issue. I posted an item yesterday about how Bonilla had carried Maverick County (Eagle Pass) by 59% in his close 2002 race but Rodriguez carried it by 86% (!) this year. But Rick Perry was able to run ads on the need for border security and still run well, for a Republican, in South Texas, because he used local Hispanic lawmen in his spots, and he has never demagogued the issue. In fact, Perry has come out against a fence. Bonilla voted for it.

* “True, it’s been a bad year for Republicans, and the district was more Democratic than it had been before the Supreme Court demanded a new round of redistricting. But with a substantial cash advantage and 49 percent in the first round, every indication is that Bonilla only needed a competent campaign in order to win.”

Sure, there must have been a dozen ways Bonilla could have found another percentage point. That’s always true in a close election. But Bonilla didn’t lose this race. The DCCC won it.

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