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.
“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.
Farenthold was also aided by the fact that Ortiz exhibited some of the worst traits of an incumbent. During the health care debate, Ortiz literally phoned it in with a tele-town hall meeting rather than engaging with his constituents in person. And although he had faced ethics questions before, during the campaign the congressman was under a new investigation by the House Ethics Committee for his per diem expenditures during overseas taxpayer-funded trips.
In short, a number of issues were working against Ortiz, and his “duckie pajamas” attack ad couldn’t save him. Farenthold even thinks the ad backfired. “I started going into places getting recognized a whole lot more,” he told me.
Whether or not all the attention was good publicity for Farenthold, it’s true that he was strapped for cash—outspent more than 2 to 1—and trailed Ortiz in name identification. Perhaps the ad, while embarrassing to Farenthold, was just too mean to be effective. “They [included] a picture of me with confetti in my hair from a birthday party and a picture of me holding a glass of wine back before I quit drinking,” he said, explaining that the duckie pajamas photo was taken at “a pajama party themed birthday party with the proceeds going to charity. . . . Somebody snapped a picture of me with one of the waitresses.”
Farenthold is already a top target for Democrats in 2012, but taking him out won’t be easy. Texas will gain four House seats in reapportionment, and Farenthold’s district may be redrawn to include more Republican voters. And the district, while favorable to local Democrats in the past, is fairly conservative. Obama only won it with 53 percent of the vote in 2008, and George W. Bush won it with 55 percent in 2004.
Farenthold himself could emerge as a stronger candidate with two years of congressional experience under his belt. He’s already thoughtful and well-spoken when discussing the issues. On the hot-button issue of immigration, for example, he carefully walks the line of opposing amnesty without sounding like he’s anti-immigrant. “The bulk of the people who come to this country either legally or illegally are coming here to live the American dream—to build a better life for themselves and not be a mooch on our welfare system,” said Farenthold. “We need to create a system that recognizes the need for immigrants and create a system where if you want to work hard and build a better life for yourself it’s a whole lot easier to do.”
“But we can’t have amnesty,” he continued, “because basically that means you can never be able to seal the borders. You can do [amnesty] once, but after you’ve done it another time, nobody’s going to take you seriously when you say you’re going to get operational control of the borders.”
While Farenthold may be one of the unlikeliest congressmen to emerge from the 2010 election, Democrats would be mistaken to underestimate him the next time around because of one silly picture. Farenthold’s campaign was no joke. And neither is he.
John McCormack is online editor of The Weekly Standard.