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In special election for Uresti state Senate seat, a bipartisan scramble for a runoff berth

Left to right: Republican Peter Flores and Democrats Pete Gallego and Roland Gutierrez, three of the eight candidates vying for state Senate District 19. (Campaign and official portraits)

In the Tuesday contest to replace former state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, state Rep. Roland Gutierrez is fighting for a spot in a runoff that is expected to include fellow Democrat Pete Gallego, a former congressman. Meanwhile, Republicans are eyeing a second-round spot for their consensus candidate, Pete Flores.

By Patrick Svtek, Texas Tribune

SAN ANTONIO — Long before the seat opened up here in Texas Senate District 19, state Rep. Roland Gutierrez was traveling the massive district, making friends as far west as Big Bend National Park's Brewster County in anticipation of the fate that would ultimately meet the embattled incumbent, Carlos Uresti.

Late Thursday morning, though, Gutierrez found himself much closer to home, knocking on doors in the heart of his House district on San Antonio's southeast side, where he encountered a number of familiar faces. He reminded them he has represented them for 13 years — three as their City Council member, 10 as their state representative.

Gutierrez is going to need all the support he can get in the area Tuesday, when voters head to the polls in the eight-way race to replace Uresti, who resigned last month after being found guilty of 11 felonies including securities fraud and money laundering. Gutierrez's toughest opponent is fellow Democrat Pete Gallego, who entered the abbreviated special election with loads of name recognition as a former congressman and longtime state lawmaker from West Texas.

"I don't think there's any doubt in anyone's mind that we're the underdog in this thing," Gutierrez said in an interview, noting the millions of dollars that have been spent in Gallego's congressional races building his name ID in the area. "At the end of the day, you need more than that. You need certainly all of the elements of character and integrity and desire, but you've got to put in the work."

Complicating the dynamic between Gallego and Gutierrez is a growing Republican effort to unify behind a single candidate — Pete Flores, who ran against Uresti in 2016 — and send him to a runoff in the Democratic-leaning district. That movement became clearer than ever Thursday when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick jumped into the fray, endorsing Flores over his two lesser-known GOP rivals.

"We feel like we're likely in the range and we have a good chance to be in a runoff," said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist working for Flores. "We're doing more this week than we've ever done."

The clock is ticking — and there was never much time to begin with in SD-19, which includes San Antonio's east side and sprawls hundreds of miles west, covering 17 counties. Uresti resigned June 18, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the special election June 20 and the filing deadline was June 25. Early voting started July 16 and ends Friday.

The sequence of events hasn't left much time for lower-profile contenders to introduce themselves to voters through all the conventional means in campaigns, especially in a mid-summer special election where turnout is expected to be very low.

"It’s what we call hand-to-hand combat voting — in other words, if you don’t know the people around, they’re not going to come out to vote," said state Rep. Poncho Nevárez of Eagle Pass, a Gallego supporter. "It's really do you know the guy and how? And that's it."

Gutierrez outspent Gallego more than 2 to 1 in the first 21 days of July — $251,000 to $97,000 — working to overcome his disadvantages, according to their latest filings with the Texas Ethics Commission. Part of Gutierrez's spending went toward a TV buy attacking Gallego as a "career politician," telling voters they "fired him from Congress, and now he wants to bring his tired ideas to our Texas state Senate."

Gallego, for his part, is more than okay with being the known entity in the race, a steady presence after the stormy waters of the recent Uresti era. The former state senator was sentenced to 12 years in prison last month in the fraud case, which stemmed from his work with a now-defunct oil field services company that was found to have perpetrated a Ponzi scheme.

"The experience, the roots, the knowledge — all of those, I think, make me the best candidate," Gallego said in an interview. "I think people want a familiar face. These are really difficult times."

The TV ad is just one of a plethora of salvos that Gutierrez has sent Gallego's way in the home stretch, pressing him over campaign donations he received in Congress from a private prison group, questioning how committed he is to some liberal priorities such as gun control and pouncing on recent reports that cast doubt on whether he lives in the district. The bottom line, according to Gutierrez: Despite the verbiage on his yard signs, you can't trust Pete.

Gallego has largely held his fire in response to the barrage from Gutierrez, suggesting to supporters in a recent email that engaging his opponent would be like wrestling a pig. In the interview, Gallego said he took the attacks as evidence he is being viewed as the biggest threat in the race and that people are looking past them because they know him better than what Gutierrez is claiming. "I certainly don't feel like I've been hit by a quarter-million dollars," Gallego added.

To be sure, Gutierrez has also felt the heat in the race. Two days before the filing deadline, the San Antonio Express-News reported that the state lawmaker had been "slapped with multiple federal and state tax liens, two breach-of-contract lawsuits and four tax forfeitures by the state of Texas." Gutierrez said he was working to resolve some of the issues and that others were due to paperwork errors, while Gallego issued a statement saying he was "disappointed" to learn Gutierrez was not living up to the high standard to which elected officials should be held.

There are two other Democrats in the special election: Poteet attorney Charlie Urbina Jones and state Rep. Tomas Uresti of San Antonio, the brother of the former state senator. Uresti, who lost his House re-election bid in the March primary, filed for the SD-19 race at the last minute and does not appear to be running as serious of a campaign as Gallego or Gutierrez — though he is at least aware of the challenge his last name creates.

"My opponents are going to continue to bash the former senator in order to confuse by implying that he and I are the same person," Tomas Uresti said in a video message to supporters earlier this month. "He's not running for office, so don't let them insult your integrity that way, please."

The specter of the scandal-scarred Uresti factors prominently into radio and TV ads being run by Flores, which suggest the Democrats vying to replace Carlos Uresti have their own baggage and are not all that different from the disgraced ex-state senator. Flores’ campaign believes the Democratic field is fractured and damaged enough for him to break through Tuesday and prove a competitive runoff contender in a district where Abbott and Democratic opponent Wendy Davis basically tied in 2014.

For the GOP, the value of seat is enticing. Control of it would give Patrick a two-thirds majority in the upper chamber, giving him more breathing room on controversial issues and strengthening the Republicans' hand heading into the 2020 redistricting process.

But first Flores has to get to the runoff and past two other GOP candidates, Jesse "Jay" Alaniz and Carlos Antonio Raymond. To do so, he’s been steadily collecting endorsements from officials and groups across the GOP, culminating Thursday with the backing of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in addition to Patrick, whose campaign also said it was running a digital ad campaign for Flores.

“Democrats believe they own this State Senate seat and their candidates are engaged in a ruthless, left-wing cage match to keep it,” Patrick said in a statement. “But Pete is reminding District 19 voters that the seat actually belongs to the people."

The eighth candidate in the race is Libertarian Tony Valdivia, a senior reporting analyst at USAA Bank.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.