This is a pivotal contest in the speaker’s race. Dee Margo is a well known local business leader whose wife is a close friend of Laura Bush. He failed in a bid to unseat Senator Eliot Shapleigh in 2006. That race wasn’t close; this one will be. Craddick recruited Margo to take out Haggerty, who is one of his chief tormentors in the House and led a spontaneous (and ill-advised) walkout on the last weekend of the session.

Margo is not particularly good on the stump. He ducked a candidates’ forum and was a no-show at a neighborhood meeting. He did debate Haggerty on KVIA-TV, the local ABC affiliate. A Haggerty supporter e-mailed me the following account of the debate written by one Don Kirkpatrick, who is obviously no Margo fan, but neglected to indicate where it was published. After recounting the events Margo missed, it continues:

Margo did attend the taping of a debate to be aired on KVIA-TV, the local ABC affiliate. In retrospect, perhaps he would have been better off if he had skipped that, too.

The format for the television face-off called for cross-questioning: each candidate could ask his opponent a direct question.

Haggerty led off and asked Margo about his stand on taxes. He read from a piece of paper and charged that Margo favored cutting property taxes – which would benefit the wealthy — and putting that burden on sales taxes – which would hurt lower-income people.

Margo was wary. “Where did you get that?” he asked.

“From you,” Haggerty replied. “It’s the Chamber of Commerce questionnaire from your race for the state senate last year. You wrote it.”

“Oh,” Margo said.

Then it was his turn to ask Haggerty a question. With advice from Karl Rove’s former associate, Kevin Shuvaloff, Margo must have thought he had paid for a good “gotcha” question.

“With a Republican Governor, Republican Lieutenant Governor and Republican Speaker, why are you not the Chair of a Committee?” Margo demanded.

In his calm baritone voice, Haggerty responded, “Well, it works like this. If you don’t like what the speaker does, if you don’t agree with his policies, then he doesn’t appoint you to chair a committee. You may like Craddick; I do not. He’s not good for El Paso.”

Margo apparently felt he had Haggerty on the ropes. “Well, then, what about before Craddick?” he asked.

After a deliberate pause that reflected Haggerty’s training as an actor, he said, “I was chairman – for four years – of one of the biggest House committees.”

There was another pause, this time by Margo, apparently realizing that he hadn’t done his homework.

Finally, he just said, “Oh.”

Haggerty has chosen to make Craddick the main issue in the race. A poll showed that Craddick’s name identification in the district was 53%, which broke into 12% favorable, 41 percent unfavorable. The El Paso Times ran an editorial cartoon on Margo’s birthday showing Craddick jumping out of a cake. Another issue, also the subject of a Times cartoon, is that Margo is a carpetbagger who moved into the district to make the race, and his explanations did not appear credible. Still, Margo is a formidable opponent who is perceived positively in the district. He has unlimited resources, and the Haggerty camp expects him to spend a quarter of a million dollars on TV.

The El Paso Times Web site had this report of a Haggerty event in January:

A new bipartisan group may have held its inaugural meeting last night at the El Paso Club. Mayor John Cook described it as “citizens against vindictive politics.”

Really, it was a fundraiser for incumbent Republican state Rep. Pat Haggerty attended by Republican legislators from across the state, by Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and by a host of locally elected Democrats, including the other four state representatives from El Paso.

Haggerty’s campaign staff estimated more than 250 attended the event, where most supporters’ speeches had a similar theme: Haggerty is good, Craddick is not.
In a not-so-subtle jab at Haggerty’s primary election opponent, state Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, said if voters don’t stick with the incumbent, they may get a representative who takes cues from Craddick instead of from people here in El Paso.
“Our primary responsibility is to vote our district, plain and simple,” he said.
Republican challenger Dee Margo, chairman and CEO of JDW Insurance, has said he wouldn’t be beholden to anyone besides the voters.

Here’s a list of the legislators who showed up at Haggerty’s fundraiser:
State Rep. Ed Kuempel, R-Seguin
State Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview
State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie
State Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless
State Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso
State Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso
State Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-El Paso
State Sen. Mike Jackson, R-LaPorte

The Austin lobby talk on this one is that Haggerty holds on, but the Craddick camp believes that he is vulnerable because he has benefited from Democratic crossover votes in the past that might not materialize this time due to the hot Democratic presidential primary. The other side of that coin is that the lack of a meaningful Republican presidential primary may depress turnout.

The anti-Craddicks actually have two bites at the apple in this district. In addition to the chance that Margo might win, the D’s have two candidates vying for the right to take on the Republican nominee in November. Joe Moody, 26, is an assistant district attorney. His father, Bill Moody, has been a district judge since 1986 and lost a close race for the Texas Supreme Court in 2006 after walking across Texas. Joe Moody managed the campaign. The other candidate is Louis Irwin, 65, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, whose doctorate is in biochemistry and physiology. This is a very close district, and Democrats believe that they can win the seat in November. Video interviews with both Democratic candidates can be seen on the El Paso Times Web site.