This did not seem to be much of a race when I was in the Valley in January. Pena had defeated Saenz by 64-36 in 2004, and Saenz had received a widely publicized DUI. But it has turned into a brutal race. Pena faces the prospect of a high turnout, which is dicey for an imcumbent, and his $50,000 contribution of questionable legality (at least in the eyes of Texans for Public Justice) from Tom Craddick drew the attention of the sometimes somnambulent McAllen Monitor. Saenz is a civil engineer whose critics say has made his living off of government contracts. He also serves as chairman of the Board of Governors of the Edinburg Regional Medical Center and Edinburg Children’s Hospital, but the Texas Hospital Association endorsed Pena (friendly incumbent rule).

Saenz got the jump on Pena before the 2007 constitutional amendments election, using campaign funds to buy TV time to endorse the cancer initiative. He appeared with his father and mother, both of whom were cancer survivors. (His father has since died.) Pena benefited from a joint legislative hearing of his Criminal Jurisprudence committee and the Corrections committee, held in the district, on the Saenz-sensitive subject of drunk driving. The Saenz campaign is trying to make Pena “the poster boy for betrayal”; the Web site refers to him as Aaron “Burr” Pena.” When word came that Hillary Clinton would campaign in the Valley, Pena shrewdly was the first to announce it, bolstering his Democratic credentials. But the breaking news of Craddick’s $50,000 contribution, combined with a previous $10,000 contribution from Bob Perry, who underwrote the Swift Boat Vets campaign against the previous Democratic presidential nominee, apparently spooked the Clinton team, and the Texas Observer blog noted a Pena statement that now that the Clinton folks are in the Valley, he won’t be as prominent.

Ironically, this race is a role reversal of the 2004 race, when Saenz accused Pena of being a “back bench bomb thrower.” Now Saenz is criticizing Pena for his closeness to Craddick, and for missing a vote on the Voter ID bill (Pena was in McAllen, making a speech; the bill passed by one vote), and Pena has thrown the “back bench bomb thrower” line back at Saenz.

From Austin, this seems to be a race about Craddick, but South Texas races seldom are determined by broad themes. They are more personal. Craddick is a factor, of course, but if Saenz beats Pena, it will have less to do with Craddick and a lot more to do with who is in power in Edinburg, the biggest city in the district. Four years ago, a Pena-friendly mayor and council were in the saddle; today the controlling faction is Saenz-friendly. Billy Leo, a longtime power broker in La Joya, in the western part of the district, is also backing Saenz. All the indicators suggest that Saenz is the aggressor at the moment. This seat is very much up for grabs.