Congressman Reyes ousted in Texas primary stunner

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Associated Press

Posted on May 30, 2012 at 5:02 PM

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Many entrenched members of the Texas congressional delegation overcame reshuffled political boundaries to win their primaries, but those new maps had nothing to do with how a guitar-playing, twice-arrested former city councilman who advocates legalizing marijuana ousted a powerful Democrat in a doozy of an election night stunner.

Beto O'Rourke kept a low profile Wednesday after defeating U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes in the El Paso district. The former House Intelligence chairman, meanwhile, returned to Washington after being denied even a runoff despite an endorsement from President Barack Obama and a campaign stop from former President Bill Clinton.

On Wednesday afternoon, Reyes released a statement congratulating O'Rourke on the victory and pledging to work with him to ensure a smooth transition.

"To all El Pasoans, I express my deep appreciation for the privilege of representing you for the past 15 years," Reyes said. "Your entrustment of this office to me has been a great honor."

The upset was a twist on the anti-incumbent fervor that swept through the U.S. House in the 2010 midterms. Then, it was Republicans swinging a wrecking ball to entrenched Democrats, but on Tuesday, O'Rourke ousted an eight-term congressman and fellow Democrat who he had attacked as becoming too cozy and ineffective to stay in Congress

At least that was the message in public. Behind the scenes, O'Rourke was embroiled in one of the nastiest U.S. House races nationwide this primary season.

Ads played up Reyes' ties to public officials swept up in corruption investigations, while Reyes shot back with television spots recounting O'Rourke being arrested for drunk driving and showing a cellphone video of O'Rourke rolling around on a barroom floor.

"I feel great," O'Rourke told El Paso television station KFOX after his victory late Tuesday. "We just ran a really great campaign made up of hundreds of volunteers who made sure every El Pasoan had a chance to decide this community's future."

Campaign officials for both O'Rourke and Reyes did not respond to interview requests Wednesday.

Reyes, 67, was the only congressional incumbent in Texas to lose in the primary. Others easily survived, including Democrat Lloyd Doggett winning in a new and predominately Hispanic district and Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson coasting against her first serious primary challengers in 20 years.

O'Rourke is unlikely to face much of a threat from the GOP nominee in the heavily Democratic district this November.

He was an unconventional candidate for being such a serious threat to an establishment incumbent like Reyes.

According to the El Paso Times, O'Rourke has supported the idea of legalizing marijuana as a way of making a dent in the drug war being waged directly across the border from El Paso in violent Ciduad Juarez. O'Rourke, however, said during his campaign that he would not press for legalization in Congress because it wasn't a priority to this district.

He's also a former guitarist in an El Paso rock band that included members who now play in the Grammy Award-winning act The Mars Volta. He was arrested in the 1990s on charges of burglary and drunk driving, and has called his public service a way for atoning for those mistakes. O'Rourke told the El Paso Times that the burglary arrest happened after he tripped an alarm while jumping a fence at the University of Texas at El Paso in 1995 but prosecutors declined the case.

But O'Rourke also comes from a family with deep political roots. His father, Pat O'Rourke, was a former El Paso County judge who was a popular longtime Democrat before switching parties in 1996, when he unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a Republican.

A super PAC called the Campaign for Primary Accountability spent $240,000 on ads that linked Reyes to a controversial contract awarded to a company that gave him campaign contributions and hired his children, spokesman for the super PAC Curtis Ellis said.

Gregg Rocha, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, said voters cares less about the missteps in O'Rourke's personal life than the corruption scandal that has been weighing on the city.

Reyes' defeat assures that Texas will lose a member of its Hispanic delegation. Texas was awarded four new U.S. House seats because of a population surge the last decade driven by Hispanics, whose numbers grew by 2.8 million in the last decade — second only to California.

Texas, however, hasn't elected more than six Hispanics to Congress since 1997. The majority of the voting-age population in two of the new districts is Hispanic, but the only Hispanic candidate remaining in those races is Domingo Garcia, who faces a runoff with state House Rep. Mark Veasey in newly created 33rd Congressional District.

Another runoff is also needed where Ron Paul's longtime South Texas district is up for grabs. The failed presidential candidate — who announced his retirement from Congress before his latest run for the White House — didn't endorse any of the nine candidates scrambling to succeed him. Republican state Rep. Randy Weber will face attorney Felicia Harris in a July runoff.

The winner isn't a slam-dunk for election in November. The Democratic nominee is former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, whose candidacy makes the U.S. House race a rare general election toss-up in Texas.

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Weber reported from Austin, Texas.

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