The race for the 23rd congressional district gained a new entrant today. Lukin Gilliland, a San Antonio rancher and investor, joined incumbent Republican Henry Bonilla and former Democratic congressman Ciro Rodriguez in the battle to represent the megadistrict that stretches west along Interstate 10, and up the Rio Grande, all the way to the eastern fringe of El Paso. Gilliland immediately announced that he was putting $500,000 of his own money into his campaign account.

The 23rd was a creature of the Tom DeLay-inspired mid-census redistricting in 2003. It is the only one of the state’s 32 congressional districts to be declared illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court. Its fatal defect was the division of Webb County that violated the Voting Rights Act by removing 100,000 Hispanic voters from the district to ensure Bonilla’s reelection. Early this month, a three-judge court redrew the 23rd’s boundaries, dropping Webb from the district and adding more voters, most of them Hispanic Democrats, in San Antonio. In the old district, 51% of the voting age population was Hispanic; the new figure is better than 60%.

The obvious question is, What is a nice Anglo rancher doing in a race like this? Gilliland will need a time machine, set for about 1975, to find Anglo Democrats in the district. (Well, there’s former governor Dolph Briscoe, in Uvalde.) Gilliland’s hope is that his ability to self-fund his race will attract Democrats who care more about winning than ethnic loyalties. Rodriguez has a strong following in the South Side of San Antonio, but he doesn’t have much money and he didn’t leave a good impression when he lost his seat to Henry Cuellar in the 2004 Democratic primary by 203 votes. The conventional wisdom is that he can’t beat Bonilla.

The field may grow larger on Friday, the last day for filing. Former San Antonio mayor Ed Garza is said to be interested, as well as Rick Bolanos, an El Paso educator who won the Democratic primary last March. (His spot as the challenger to Bonilla was wiped out when the district’s boundaries were redrawn.) Albert Uresti, brother of Carlos, who won a heated Democratic primary for a San Antonio state senate seat, has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.

Gilliland’s Hondo Creek Ranch Co. operates in Bexar County. His investment company is Aquila Capital Ventures, which invests in health care companies, and he sits on the board of MTMS, an El Paso health care technology company. He also owns restaurants in Colorado. San Antonio State Representative Robert Puente will be his campaign treasurer. A Gilliland spokesman also claims the support of representatives Jose Menendez and Michael Villareal. Other representatives who have shown interest in Gilliland’s campaign are Tracy King of Uvalde and Pete Gallego of Alpine. All are Democrats of course. It is possible that Gilliland, who grew up in Alamo Heights, could have some crossover appeal in his old neighborhood. (The same could be said for Bonilla on the South Side.)

Before the 2004 election, Gilliland gave $2,000 to John Edwards, $1,500 to Wesley Clark, and $1,000 to John Kerry. He has also supported the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit organization designed to counter the religious right; last year, he hosted the organization’s tenth anniversary celebration at his San Antonio home. The organization has such prominent supporters as Fred Baron, the Dallas trial lawyer; director Rick Linklater; Ann Richards; Trammel Crow; and former Dell CFO Tom Meredith.

In the November election, which is like a nonpartisan primary, the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff–unless one candidate, which can only be Bonilla, wins a majority. Around 63% of the vote will come from Bexar County. Bonilla will dominate the Republican North Side, and the South Side will be fiercely contested. Gilliland’s consultant, Kelly Fero, says that the objective of all the Ds will be to hold Bonilla under 50% and force a runoff.

The race is reminiscent of the recent Democratic primary race in which Carlos Uresti beat longtime Senate incumbent Frank Madla. Uresti had the edge in Bexar County but Madla, having run for years in the vast, sparsely populated hinterland of the Senate district (whose boundaries closely resembles the congressional district’s), was thought to have the edge in the countryside. But Uresti ran a much better campaign and won the race. Bonilla, like Madla, has been running in that part of the district for years. Even Rodriguez is largely unknown west of Interstate 35; his old district ran between San Antonio and Laredo. Eagle Pass, Del Rio, Uvalde, and Fort Stockton will be crucial battlegrounds in the cactus country.

Gilliland will try to position himself as an outsider and tar Bonilla with his associations with Washington in general and DeLay in particular. It’s as good a strategy as any, especially since some of the tar rubs off on Rodriguez. But Bonilla, with at least $2 million to bankroll his campaign and the power of incumbency, will be tough to keep under 50%.

Addendum: I just read on Rick Perry vs. The World, an excellent political blog, that Gilliland gave Bonilla $250. There is a link to the actual receipt. He also gave Ciro Rodriguez a total of $2,000.