(El Paso, Texas) – U.S Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a political upstart who had never served in a state office, took his office 16 years ago after an entrenched Democratic opponent retired rather than fight a newcomer in a primary runoff election.
Reyes calls that 1996 episode his toughest political fight.
Today, Reyes defends his eight-term incumbency in a Democratic primary election against a challenger who has never held state office.
When the similarities between his contest in 1996 and the upcoming primary are pointed out, Reyes notes what he considers the big difference: “I was a Democrat.”
In one conversation, Reyes never strays far from pushing his view that challenger Beto O’Rourke, a former El Paso city council member, is “a Republican masquerading as a Democrat.”
“I see this as a Democratic versus Republican election,” Reyes said. He also claims the 39-year-old O’Rourke is a wealthy 1 percenter using Super PAC money and that the $174,000 a year salary received by senators and representatives like himself is a middle-class wage.
Given that, Reyes and his team anticipated a battle when he ran his first campaign ad during the February Super Bowl.
“We expected it because this guy challenging me is very wealthy, his father-in-law is very wealthy and the approval rating for Congress overall is low,” Reyes said. “And we found that he is both wealthy and unscrupulous.”
The Democratic primary here is heading toward a photo finish on Tuesday, when Reyes will know the results of the toughest political battle of his life. Other than the one, he said, that got him here in the first place, after serving for 26 years with the U.S. Border Patrol.
The winner likely will go to Washington in this Democratic-dominated region.
What has been a contest of issues has evolved – or dissolved – into an ad war attack.
Reyes pointed to O’Rourke’s drunk-driving charge 14 years ago in one ad. In another, Reyes claims O’Rourke wants to take away Social Security.
O’Rourke admits to the DUI, and says he completed the allotted program for such offenses. As far as Social Security, O’Rourke said, “we actually need to save it because we aren’t going to be able to meet demand.”
He suggests raising the income cap on paying FICA.
O’Rourke came back with a 30-second spot that notes Reyes advocated in Congress for a $200 million virtual border fence, and that the deal came in as a no-bid contract with the contractor, IMC, Inc., hiring all three of Reyes’ kids.
Reyes admitted to a local newspaper that IMC hired two of the kids.
And as far as the Super PAC backing, it’s a matter that O’Rourke says he can’t control; the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a political action committee based in Houston, has spent $195,000 this month on ads targeting Reyes.
The battle has a generational component as well. At 67 years old, Reyes is one of 254 Baby Boomers in Congress, the largest of the age demographic. He is a law-and-order Vietnam vet with an associate degree in criminal justice.
At 39, the Gen Xer O’Rourke touts drug war reform and an end to the ongoing talk of security on the Mexican border.
“Border security is not a problem,” O’Rourke said, jabbing at one of his opponent’s pet causes. “Zero terrorists have passed through the southern border. And no amount of border patrol will solve our drug demand problem.”
The gap is illustrated in a number of ways.
In downtown El Paso, a sign proclaiming that “Reyes Works” sits in the window of an immigration and criminal defense law firm. In the window of a tiny diner next to the firm, a sign supporting “Beto for Congress” jams the space along with a poster for an upcoming Snoop Dogg show and flyers for gigs at a local bar.
And there’s the social media reliance.
On a recent morning O’Rourke has posted an invite on his Facebook page: “Beto is NOW at VISTA HILLS SHOPPING CENTER, located at 1840 Lee Trevino! He will be there until 1pm! Stop by during your lunch, say hello, and cast your vote!”
There he stood on the median, white shirt and khakis, a loose-tie version of the Beltway uniform, holding a campaign sign and waving at cars.
At the Facebook page of Reyes, there is a photo of the congressman with two uniformed gentlemen. Without saying so, it also declares, “the Establishment supports me.”
Reyes looks the elder statesman. He’s at the polls, doing door knocks – by Tuesday he said he will have hit 33,000 homes. But on Facebook, no invite to an event in a shopping center parking lot.
Steve Miller is a reporter for Texas Watchdog, which is affiliated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.