AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — When state Rep. J.M. Lozano abandoned the Democratic Party in March, the Texas GOP held a welcoming ceremony at its Austin headquarters featuring the biggest of its big guns, including Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Both later campaigned for Lozano in his Gulf Coast district, but that high-powered support was not enough for him to avoid a July 31 runoff with a second-place finisher he beat by a scant 44 votes in the primary.
Lozano is not the only newbie Republican who has struggled to stay in office since switching parties: Longtime Rep. Chuck Hopson is locked in a dead heat for the GOP nomination in East Texas, while Rep. Aaron Pena is retiring because new legislative maps favor his old party in his redrawn South Texas district.
In a Republican-dominated state where switching parties has furthered the political careers of Perry and others, this latest batch of Democratic defectors are struggling amid the scrutiny of leaving a party whose influence in the state Capitol continues to wane.
“Both of my grandfathers were yellow dog Democrats and most Texans that are my age or older have gone through that experience of becoming a Republican,” said Nacogdoches attorney Travis Clardy, who is in a runoff with Hopson after losing the primary by 160 ballots. “But what you can’t do is wait until 2010. You can’t run underneath Barack Obama in 2008 and then change parties.”
Texas Democrats have gradually lost power in recent decades and have failed to hold a statewide office since 1994. Republicans hold a 100 to 48 advantage with one seat vacant in the state House and a 19-12 edge in the Senate.
This majority has been helped by other party switchers who have managed to retain office since leaving the Democratic Party in recent years. Rep. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, which borders Lozano’s district, served four terms as a Democrat in the 1990s then won as a Republican in 2008. He secured his district’s GOP nomination unopposed this year. Democratic state Rep. Allan Ritter of Nederland became a Republican in December 2010 — and easily won his new party’s 2012 nomination.
But Hopson and Lozano haven’t had such easy paths to re-election as their opponents question their motives for switching parties. Lozano, for instance, joined the GOP only after his district was redrawn and became more conservative.
His opponent, Bill T. Wilson II, claims district Republicans don’t yet trust him.
“If I was to design a 12-step process for recovering Democrat politicians, step one wouldn’t be running as a Republican, that would be step 12,” said Wilson, an architect from Portland. “I think you’ve got to demonstrate you’re conservative first.”
Lozano, a 32-year-old Kingsville businessman seeking a second term, said he was surprised he was forced into a runoff but defends his decision to leave the Democratic Party. He said his district has always been dominated by Republican values and oil and gas interests, and that he made his party switch to conform to his voters’ beliefs — not to preserve his political career.
“It’s such a commonplace occurrence of people saying, ‘You know, this isn’t my party anymore,’ that it’s actually an insult when someone brings that up here,” said Lozano, who owns a string of Wingstop restaurants. “Almost everyone at one point that’s a Republican was once a Democrat.”
Switching parties is nothing new in Texas and has helped many political careers blossom through the years. Perry was originally elected to the Texas House as a Democrat in 1984 before becoming a Republican to run for agricultural commissioner five years later. Former U.S. Rep. Phil Gramm was a Democrat before resigning from Congress in 1983 to switch parties and win back his seat in a special election the same year.
“I think even John Wayne did it,” joked Hopson, a pharmacist from Jacksonville who barely won re-election as a Democrat in 2008, then jumped to the GOP a year later saying Obama didn’t reflect his district’s values.
Hopson, who has been in the state House since 2000, would be unopposed in November’s general election if he beats Clardy. He said most of his constituents have accepted his switch — which featured a GOP welcome similar to Lozano’s.
“We believe in God, we believe in guns and we believe in family and that’s part of the mantra of the Republican Party already,” Hopson said.
The party affiliation issue has also dominated the race between Lozano and Wilson, either of whom would face former Democratic state Rep. Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles in the general election.
Lozano made a television spot in which he explains to his newborn son that he’s running for state Legislature because Obama is in the White House, even though he endorsed Obama in the past. Valley PAC, a Democratic political action committee, sent out a mailer recalling those endorsements just before the May 29 primary, Lozano said.
Lozano’s district was home to Irma Rangel, who in 1976 became the first Hispanic woman elected to the state Legislature. But both Lozano and Wilson bristle at the idea that their race is about a Hispanic candidate versus a white one, even though the Republican leadership hailed Lozano as the future face of the party when he made the switch.
“Texas is becoming a Hispanic state. And the Republican Party, we’ve got to be relevant to a broader group of people,” Wilson acknowledged. “But I don’t think the way that you get it is making poster children out of defecting Democrats. I think you’ve got to have genuine Republican Hispanics.”
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