The question raised by Ciro Rodriguez’s apparent withdrawal from the District 23 race for Congress against Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla is whether the Democrats’ chances of beating Bonilla are better or worse without him. Rodriguez is a former congressman who was well known on San Antonio’s South Side, which is the biggest source of Democratic votes in the district.

The case that they are better off: Before he went to Congress, Rodriguez was known in the Texas Legislature as “Zero.” The nickname was more a play on his name than a true reflection of his effectiveness, or lack thereof, but it wasn’t that far off the mark. He has lost two races to Henry Cuellar in District 28, one as an incumbent in 2004, by a razor-thin margin, one as a challenger in 2006, when he got only 40% of the vote. He had just $80,000 in his campaign account. He was yesterday’s news, and he wasn’t going to beat Bonilla. Now the Democrats have a fresh face, Lukin Gilliland, with deep pockets and crossover appeal to Republicans, and a representative of a family with growing clout in San Antonio, Albert Uresti, whose brother Carlos should win his general election race for the state Senate. (There are several other Democrats in the race, and one independent.)

The case that they are worse off: Because he had considerable support among his former colleagues in the House, who loathe Cuellar for his penchant for voting with the Republicans, Rodriguez represented the best chance to get some national Democratic money into the district. His withdrawal can be taken as a sign that the national Ds don’t think that the race is winnable, even though though the numbers suggest that it is. Bonilla is a pro. He is a proven campaigner. He has been running for years in the vast countryside west of Bexar County, where Uresti’s name became known only this year (because of Carlos’s race) and Gilliland’s name is not known at all. The San Antonio money crowd is behind Bonilla. Rodriguez may not have been the strongest candidate around, but he had a core of supporters who would have increased the overall Democratic vote total, perhaps by enough to force Bonilla into a runoff. With their candidate out of the race, those voters may stay home.

Advantage Bonilla. Which was the case all along.