I heard a report earlier this week that Craddick was suddenly panicked about this race. The image of Craddick as “panicked” doesn’t readily present itself, but the race has become an important battle in Craddick’s fight to hold onto the speakership.

Fletcher, of course, is Dan Patrick’s handpicked candidate to take out Van Arsdale, who supported Joe Nixon over Patrick in the 2006 race in which Patrick won his Senate seat without a runoff. Patrick has said that his objection to Van Arsdale is that not that he campaigned for his opponent but that he doesn’t vote his district. Craddick was slow to recognize that other Republicans in the footprint of Patrick’s radio broadcasts took a “There but for the grace of God go I” view of the Patrick/Fletcher challenge to Van Arsdale. They fear that if Fletcher wins, they may be the next in Patrick’s. They want Patrick stopped, now, lest he start dictating how they should vote. The vote that is really causing problems for Van Arsdale is his support of the business margins tax in 2006; the criticism is that he voted with Craddick in order to advance himself in the House, rather than vote his district.

The peril for Craddick is that if Van Arsdale loses, the speaker will get the blame, for not doing enough to support him. And it will resurrect two complaints members have against Craddick: (1) that he forces them to vote with him instead of voting their districts; and (2) that he really doesn’t care about individual members and their races, so long as the person who ultimately occupies the seat is pledged to him. Whether these concerns are valid is beside the point at this stage of the game. Perception is reality. There are a lot of chickens coming home to roost.

Update: A Fletcher supporter e-mailed me this information, which I publish without a warranty: Allen has about 3000 yard signs out and is winning that war 9 to 1. Fletcher has 24 precinct chairs endorsing him, Corbin has 3. The Mayor of Tomball is supporting Fletcher as are most local officials and community leaders.

PENA – SAENZ (Edinburg)

The Houston Chronicle reported Friday evening that Hillary Clinton will visit El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday and Wednesday. This has to be good news for Aaron Pena, who is Clinton’s outreach director for South Texas. When I was in the Valley in late January, this did not seem to be much of a race, but I have been getting conflicting reports lately — mainly, that Saenz, a civil engineer, has put a lot of his own money into the race. Pena has been quoted as saying, “[M]y opponent has made it clear that he is willing to spend several hundred thousand dollars of his personal fortune to attack me and my family.” (According to Saenz’s thirty-day report, he put $70,000 into his campaign.) Pena’s Democratic credentials are under attack in the race, but being seen with and prominently linked to Clinton will go a long way to cure that — especially with new voters, the wild card in the March 4 Democratic primary, who are drawn by the presidential race and may know little about local races.

The online Rio Grande Guardian has a longer story in which Pena speculates about a bus trip through the Valley or a possible rally at the University of Texas-Pan American.

General information about the race (from the Guardian archives):
* Pena has been endorsed by five former mayors of Edinburg, but the current mayor is expected to endorse Eddie Saenz, according to an earlier Guardian article.
* Pena defeated Saenz by 64-36 in 2004. Ironically, Saenz criticized Pena in that race for being a “back bench bomb thrower” who could not pass bills because he would not work with the House leadership. Whereupon Pena became a Craddick D and now says Saenz would not be effective if he positions himself as a “back bench bomb thrower.”
* Saenz’s consultant, Kelly Fero, has said that Saenz will challenge Pena on two issues, CHIP and the Voter ID bill, which passed, 73-72, in Pena’s absence to make a speech in McAllen.
* Pena points to $5 million in additional funds appropriated for the Regional Academic Health Center, $3 million for the construction of a new health clinic and substance abuse treatment center, and another $750,000 for the South Texas Museum in Edinburg.
* Saenz is chairman of South Texas Health Systems, which encompasses six hospitals, but the Texas Hospital Association endorsed Pena. So has the Rio Grande Valley Labor Council.
* In December, Saenz pleaded not guilty to drunk driving charges.
* In January, Craddick contributed $250,000 to an obscure PAC, which then sent $50,000 to Craddick Ds Pena, Kino Flores, and Kevin Bailey. This has become an issue in the race.
* Note that a reader’s comment to this article says that every mayor in the district supports Saenz.