THE BLOG
09/17/2014 02:58 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

The Political Education of a Tea Party Congressman

Bill Clark via Getty Images

Congressman Blake Farenthold (Texas-Corpus Christi) rode the wave of tea party enthusiasm into the U.S. House in 2010, defeating 27-year veteran Democrat Solomon Ortiz by less than 800 votes. Farenthold's questions about President Barack Obama's citizenship, his call for Attorney General Eric Holder's resignation over the so-called Fast and Furious gun tracking scandal, as well as his statement that the House has the votes to impeach the president attracted Bill Maher's disdain and made him one of the first nominees for Maher's "flip-a-district" campaign. On paper Farenthold's district ought to be competitive. The reality is that it probably is not.

Former House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill said that "all politics is local." However polarized national politics has become, Congressman Farenthold has learned how to stay faithful to his tea party principles while learning how to be a successful legislator who is attentive to his constituents' local economic interests. Robert Draper's 2012 book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do, depicts Farenthold confiding to his constituents that the Constitution's authors made governmental action deliberately difficult. Farenthold may have discovered the first lesson of successful congressional politics: sometimes even a person of principle must compromise if he hopes to accomplish anything.

Although the congressman takes pride in his colorful sound bite attacks on the Obama administration, his legislative record is more moderate than his rhetoric. The National Journal places his voting record comfortably in the middle of all House Republicans. He is also a successful legislator, ranking in the top twenty percent of representatives who have won passage for their bills.

Local observers testify that he is sensitive to his constituents. Sequestration, bans on earmarks, and Republican resistance to new spending has made the traditional "bring home the bacon" kind of congressional politics more difficult. Farenthold has successfully shifted to a "lean pork" strategy, moving pet projects through the budget process and bringing federal money home such as a contract to test drones. He also cosponsored a successful bipartisan bill to improve trade along the US-Mexico border by encouraging public-private initiatives.

Farenthold's sprawling House district includes 13 counties, reaching from the Texas coast to the central Texas hill country. When the federal court redrew the district in 2012, it reduced a majority-minority district with an overwhelming 73 percent Hispanic population to a less Hispanic heavy 50 percent. While non-Hispanic whites constitute only 43 percent of the district, the low turnout of minority voters in 2012 helped to reelect Farenthold by an 18 percent margin over a locally well-known Democratic challenger. The district clearly leans Republican given that Mitt Romney bested Barack Obama by 23 points in the last presidential vote.

Democrats hoped that Farenthold would be vulnerable in 2014. The district looked like it could competitive. A 2014 Immigration Policy Center study places it among the twelve Republican districts with the highest number of naturalized Hispanics and Asian citizens. Democrats across the nation are funding Battleground Texas' efforts, modeled on President Obama's successful tactics in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, to turn Texas blue by 2016. Battleground Texas has targeted Farenthold's district as one of its opportunities to galvanize a Democratic surge. It supports State Senator Wendy Davis's campaign for governor, betting that the national attention focused on her filibuster against a restrictive abortion bill would translate into a successful run. So far, she has not gained the traction she needs according to a September CBS/New York Times poll showing her 18 points behind her Republican opponent. Pundits predict Republican gains in the Senate and in the House this November.

Perhaps this is why the best known and well-funded Democrats in the district chose to sit out this House election, leaving the party nomination in the hands of an inexperienced, poorly funded opponent, Wesley Reed. Marine Corps veteran Reed has raised $ 169,433 as of June 30 and Farenthold is currently outspending him by over $700,000. Normally, challengers must spend at least $ 800,000 to stay competitive with House incumbents. Reed's campaign is also lagging behind Farenthold's in social media hits and local media coverage.

Marines are not known to run from a fight, but this may not be the opportune time for this particular fight.

It is wise that Mr. Maher opted to target a Minnesota Republican instead.

This post is part of a series about "Real Time with Bill Maher" 's "Flip a District" initiative. Authors live in the state of the Congressperson whose district the program seeks to "flip." To learn more about Flip a District, visit here.