Mr. Farenthold Goes to Washington
The unlikeliest freshman.
Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
When the 112th Congress is sworn in on January 5, there may be no better living, breathing reminder of just how big the 2010 Republican wave was than Rep. Blake Farenthold. Written off during the campaign as a longshot at best and a joke at worst, Farenthold ended up narrowly defeating Texas Democrat Solomon Ortiz, a 14-term incumbent who had typically won reelection by more than 20 points in a district that is now 71 percent Hispanic.
Photo Credit: AP
“For me, this was the race that put the exclamation point on the cycle,” says David Wasserman, who analyzes House races at the Cook Political Report. When Wasserman moved the race from the “likely” to the “leans Democratic” category in early October—a more competitive rating than other handicappers gave it—“both party committees told me I was nuts,” he says.
It’s easy to see why Democrats and Republicans were skeptical of Farenthold. As an unpaid sidekick on a Corpus Christi talk radio show, “Lago in the Morning,” he had an unusual résumé. Farenthold told me that, after practicing law and then owning a computer business, he initially got on the radio show by being the “go-to guy whenever there was some issue with computers—sometimes a hacker story or somebody busted for child porn on their computer. I was the expert they would call.”
Curly-haired and roly-poly, he was anything but the stereotypical image of a square-jawed congressional candidate. And then, a few weeks before the election, a photo of Farenthold surfaced that was supposed to destroy whatever chances he had of winning: It showed the Republican candidate wearing nothing but duckie pajamas and a goofy grin while posing next to a scantily clad woman in a bar. The Ortiz campaign pounced and put the picture in a TV ad in an attempt to paint Farenthold as a ridiculous party boy.
“Who among us hasn’t donned duckie pajamas for a night out with scantily clad women, then run for Congress?” snickered the liberal blog Talking Points Memo on October 15, just two days after the National Republican Congressional Committee had elevated Farenthold to its second-tier “contender” status. “Democrats see an opportunity to use Farenthold to lampoon the GOP, which, with help from the media, has advanced the narrative that they’ve expanded the field of ‘in play’ races ahead of November,” reported Talking Points Memo. “Farenthall [sic] is supposedly part of that expanded playing field.”
Of course, it was Farenthold who had the last laugh when he pulled off a 799-vote win (a recount barely changed the Election Night margin). The victory surprised many, including, to a certain extent, the congressman-elect. “Early on in the race, I had a nightmare that I won, and now it’s like ‘Now what do I do?’ ” Farenthold candidly told a Texas TV station on Election Night.
So how did Farenthold do it? Certainly, the national anti-Democratic mood and the poor economy hurt Ortiz. But there were plenty of Republican candidates who seemed to be in a better position to win than Farenthold, yet didn’t pull it off in the end. One thing that made Farenthold’s campaign different from many others in 2010 was his decision to directly attack his opponent’s record on abortion. “In the general election, we made a big issue of Ortiz’s voting on pro-life [issues],” says Farenthold. While Farenthold’s campaign hit Ortiz with what little money it had in a TV ad for voting with “liberal pro-abortion politicians in Washington” and even voting for “taxpayer-funded abortions,” Ortiz insisted throughout the campaign that he was and always had been pro-life.
Steve Ray, Farenthold’s pollster and consultant, told me that Ortiz’s vote for Obamacare’s final passage was particularly toxic. Before that, Ortiz had never taken a high profile vote in favor of abortion. Ray thinks that the issue moved a significant number of votes in the heavily Hispanic district that stretches along the Gulf coast from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande. Strongly pro-life voters “will vote for someone who is pro-life even if they disagree with someone who is against them on every one else,” Ray said. “We actually had signs touting Blake’s pro-life position at the polls, and we heard people would walk out”—voters who couldn’t vote for a Republican but also couldn’t vote for a Democrat who didn’t oppose abortion.