in Houston, Texas

Compelling runoffs in Texas Congressional primaries, but will the voters come?

Monday, Jul 23, 2012, 01:49PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
voting card

Three of the most compelling elections in the last decade in Texas are likely to be decided on July 31 by a relative handful of voters.

Having commanded arguably the most powerful political office in the state for nine years and pouring nearly $25 million into a campaign, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst finds himself knotted up to the end with Ted Cruz, a former state solicitor general who has never held elective office, in the GOP runoff for U.S. Senate.

In the Republican primary in the redrawn 25th District, former secretary of state Roger Williams has raised nearly eight times as much money to stay ahead of Wes Riddle, Central Texas Tea Party founder whose tireless campaigning belies a maiden political candidacy.

And in the Democratic primary in the 23rd, Pete Gallego, the longtime West Texas state representative with more money and endorsements, now finds himself running from behind to catch former congressman Ciro Rodriguez.

Each of the runoffs was forced in a May 29 primary that drew less than 16 percent of registered voters, next to 2004 the worst turnout in a presidential election year in the last 20, according to turnout figures provided by the Secretary of State.

In 2000, runoff elections drew just 2.11 percent of registered Democrats and 1.93 percent of registered Republicans. In 1996, 4.97 percent of registered Democrats and 2.41 percent of registered Republicans cast votes in the runoff elections, according to the secretary of state’s figures.

“It’s the middle of summer, it’s the heat, it’s people taking vacations,” says Lydia Camarillo, who has done considerable canvassing in the 23rd District for the Southwest Voter Registration Project of San Antonio. “People think they’ve already voted in the primary. They have to be told they have to vote again. Those people have to be motivated to come out and vote.”

The advantage, all things being equal, goes to the candidates who have done the most to excite and inspire their respective voting bases, James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

Ted CruzTed Cruz

From presumptive heir to the seat being vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in early spring, Dewhurst has steadily lost ground to Cruz, Henson says. As recently as May, before the primary, a survey by the Project showed Dewhurst leading Cruz 40 percent to 28 percent, with former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert getting 15 percent.

Primary results - Dewhurst getting 45 percent of the vote, Cruz, 34 percent, and Leppert, 13.4 percent - reflected the survey. The results also reflected how much ground Dewhurst had lost, Henson says.

Dewhurst’s own poll, released earlier this month, showed him ahead by 8 percentage points. Public Policy Polling, however, released a poll on July 12 that showed Cruz ahead of Dewhurst by 49 to 44 percent.

So much has the tenor of the race changed that some have questioned the value of Leppert endorsing Dewhurst two weeks before the election.

“You could see by the numbers Cruz making steady inroads,” Henson says. “I now think it’s going to be close. I’m not willing to bet the mortgage either way.”

Cruz has at the same time shown that all things don’t necessarily have to be equal.

David DewhurstDavid Dewhurst

Through mid-July, Cruz had raised $9 million, about two-and-a-half times less than Dewhurst who, according to the Houston Chronicle, has pumped about $16.5 million of his own money into the campaign so far.

Cruz raised $1.7 million from mid-May through the end of June alone, a sign of confidence in his continued strong showing.

The biggest reason for this ostensible surprise in the race was the consistent underestimation of the dissatisfaction of conservative Republicans with a candidate, Dewhurst, who appeared to have everything someone needed to become a U.S. senator, Henson says.

The media began following Cruz at the time he announced he was running for the Senate. Alice Linahan, a leading Tea Party organizer and member of the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, has been following Cruz for three years.

“He’s been out there with the people, talking to the people, having his picture taken with the people,” Linahan, who lives in Argyle, south of Denton, says. “When they talk about all the numbers, those polling experts have no idea what has been going on at the grassroots level.”

Tea Party leaders made it clear to Texas Watchdog last October they would be focused on cleaning house in the Republican Party long before they turned their attention to Democratic opponents.

“Definitely, Ted Cruz is what the Tea Party was looking for,” Linahan says. “David Dewhurst is seen as a kind of country club Republican. Anyone who has been in office that long has had to make backroom deals to get things done. They end up selling their soul.”

Corbin Casteel, a Republican consultant and strategist in Austin, acknowledges the depth of the Tea Party movement has become clearer to the mainstream in the party.

However, Casteel warned observers not to discount Dewhurst’s ability to deploy his personal fortune in the last days before the election. And in spite of a Tea Party distaste for deal-making, voters are being asked to choose a person who will serve without seniority in a body that still values comity and compromise.

“It should be very interesting. There’s no doubt Cruz’ voters are more excited right now, but no matter what, money still matters. This is going to be very close.”

Riddle takes to grassroots, Williams to massive advertising in District 25

Although the dollar amounts are much smaller, Casteel says he thinks money might matter even more to Roger Williams in fighting off Wes Riddle, whose voter base is much the same as motivated as the base for Cruz.

Wes RiddleWes Riddle

Riddle, a retired lieutenant colonel and a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army from Belton, remains a bit of a riddle outside of his core Tea Party support.

At 14.6 percent of the vote, Riddle finished well behind Williams, who polled 25 percent. But four of the others in a 12-candidate field received at least 9 percent of the vote, including former Railroad Commission Chairman Mike Williams.

It has been hard to draw the attention of voters away from all of the advertising bought by Williams, a successful car dealer in Weatherford. Williams had raised $2.7 million through mid-July and had $512,124 on hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Through the same period, Riddle had $47,527 remaining of the roughly $345,000 he had raised, according to the FEC data.

Riddle has compensated by relentlessly covering the 200-mile long, 11-county district. “His grassroots game has been second to none,” Casteel says.

He has connected with conservative voters in the same way Cruz has, says Linahan, who publicly endorsed Riddle. He is likely, she says, to benefit from a strong showing in the runoff by Cruz.

Although he recently won the endorsement of Texas Party hero Rep. Ron Paul, Riddle has not been as successful as Cruz in positioning himself to the right of his opponent. Fissures have developed among Tea Party membership in the district.

Roger WilliamsRoger Williams

When contacted for comment by Texas Watchdog, Angela Cox, the former chairman of the Johnson County Tea Party, said she had resigned her post to work for Williams.

“I have known Roger for several years and have always strongly supported him,” Cox said in an e-mail. “He is someone I believe that Tea Party members find to have the same beliefs that we have. He will do us a great job when he wins this campaign.”

Linahan says she intends to vote for Riddle, but says she thinks, perhaps, this is a race upon which Tea Party members are not willing to angrily split.

Chris Britton, a Republican consultant who lives in the district and who has friends who have or are working for both candidates, says he and the rest of the district have been bombarded by Williams ads.

As well as Riddle has done on the ground, Britton says, “I just feel like the momentum is with Williams.”

A tossup in vast 23rd District between Gallego, Rodriguez

Pete GallegoPete Gallego

Momentum has shifted sharply in the Democratic primary in the sprawling 23rd District, 48,000 square miles in all or parts of 29 counties from San Antonio to the El Paso County border.

From the time he announced his candidacy until the May 29 primary Rep. Pete Gallego was considered the frontrunner. His chief opponent, Ciro Rodriguez, had the taint of having lost to Canseco in the general election in 2010.

That political reproach was the spur Rodriguez needed. Much like Cruz, Rodriguez began campaigning long before anyone had announced for anything, while no one was looking.

When primary night was over, Rodriguez had won 46 percent of the vote, Gallego 41 percent. Suddenly, Rodriguez looked like he might be the best candidate to win back the congressional seat for Democrats, Camarillo says.

The race has been relatively quiet, with no major clashes between the two candidates. Gallego has $7,051 on hand as of mid-July after raising more than $844,000, according to the FEC. Rodriguez had more than $19,722, having raised more than $304,000, the FEC says.

Ciro RodriguezCiro Rodriguez

But rather than money, which proved to be a bit of a canard in the primary, Camarillo says she thinks the runoff will be decided by the motivation of the core voting bases for the candidates.

Gallego, from Alpine, represents a lot of territory, sparsely populated. Rodriguez, from San Antonio, remains very popular in a place where a third of the voters in the district live.

Beyond that, the primary demonstrated that even two well liked, politically established candidates could not necessarily bring out people who usually don’t vote in general elections, let alone a runoff.

“Leading up to the primary, Rodriguez outworked Gallego,” Camarillo says. “But Gallego has won his share of elections, too. He hasn’t been sitting back. I can’t call this one. I think it’s clearly a tossup.”

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of voting card by flickr user sarowen, used via a Creative Commons license.

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