Texas Runoff Round Up: A Good Night for the Tea Party
When Dan Patrick won a seat in the Texas Senate in 2006, a lot of people didn’t take him seriously. You weren’t really supposed to take him seriously—not at first. That wasn’t what Patrick was for. There’s a healthy tradition of fly-by-night rabble-rousers in the Legislature, and Patrick, a rambunctious right-wing radio talk show host with a healthy ego and a loud mouth fit the model to a T. Most such people flame out in one term.
When he was first running for office, the man he was vying to replace, Republican state Sen. John Lindsay, didn’t think much of him. “I think he would be terrible in the Senate,” Lindsay told the Observer in 2006. “He’d be a difficult person for the lieutenant governor and the leadership to work with. I don’t think his agenda would be good for the state of Texas.” Lindsay wasn’t the only one to suggest Patrick, were he to stick around, would be bad news for the state GOP.
Now, he is the party. It’s hard to overstate the dramatic change in Patrick’s fortunes—and the state Republican party along with it. Patrick’s victory in the Republican primary makes him the favorite to become Texas’ next lieutenant governor. It’s quite possible that come January, Patrick will be the most influential state-level politician in Texas. The state hasn’t seen that kind of change for quite some time—perhaps not since George W. Bush’s resignation in 2000 to take the presidency, which helped elevate a new cohort of statewide officials to prominence.
Think about it this way: All of the Texas’ senior statesmen right now—Rick Perry, Greg Abbott, David Dewhurst, and John Cornyn, could be described as coming from the political generation that emerged out of the 1980s and ’90s. That is to say, they made their bones in public life when one-party rule in the state was emerging, or was still young.
Patrick has no such history, and the wave he’ll likely be coming into office with—crooked Ken Paxton, cartoonish Sid Miller—are a new wave of Republican statewide figures. They, and especially Patrick, are creatures of one-party rule. The conservative core of the state GOP is calcifying—and why shouldn’t it? It has no competition and nothing to fear. As such, the defenestration of Dewhurst—the second-longest serving lieutenant governor in the state’s history—and the ascension of Patrick represents a revolutionary change in the way the state does politics.
In public, Democrats suggest Patrick’s rich history of radical policy positions and erratic behavior opens an opportunity for Democratic nominee Leticia Van de Putte. In private, some suggest the real opportunity is in 2018, after Patrick has had four years to blow through the Senate like a cyclone. But don’t underestimate Dan Patrick. And don’t underestimate the tea party, which had a very good night tonight (except in down-ballot Texas House races).
Fort Worth tea party activist Konni Burton beat Mark Shelton, a more mainstream and not terribly charismatic doctor, in Fort Worth’s Senate District 10. That’s the seat Wendy Davis is vacating. If Burton snaps that seat up in November by defeating Democrat Libby Willis, the GOP will not only gain a key seat in the Senate, the tea party caucus will have yet another member to join the new-ish ranks of Donna Campbell, Don Huffines and Bob Hall. Ah, yes, Bob Hall, a political unknown who shockingly beat incumbent state Sen. Bob Deuell, once considered a “crazy conservative.” Just how much value do Republican primary voters put in being as far to the right as possible? Bob Hall was accused by his ex-wife of physically, verbally and sexually assaulting her for much of their 23-year marriage, and successfully obtained a restraining order in Florida in 1994. (Hall said his ex-wife was using the courts to retaliate against him.) That didn’t matter much to GOP voters in Senate District 2.
In the end, it also didn’t matter much that Ken Paxton, a wealthy tea partier from the Dallas exurbs (McKinney), had violated state securities law. (An attorney, he solicited clients for an investment firm without registering with the Texas Securities Board; his clients didn’t know that he was receiving a commission for referring them to the investment management company.) And it didn’t matter much that he refused for weeks to answer questions from his opponent or the media.
With 94 percent of the vote counted, Paxton led Dan Branch 64 percent to 36 percent.
What mattered was that Paxton presented himself as—and was perceived as—further to the right than Branch. In one of his ads, Paxton preposterously called Branch—who would’ve once, not so long ago, been considered by all honest parties, a hardcore conservative—a “registered union lobbyist” and a “liberal” who was soft on abortion. That the accusations were silly hardly mattered. Republican runoff voters weren’t much interested either in a violation of the state’s arcane securities law. Whoever thought the tea party’s influence had slipped had better think again. —Forrest Wilder and Chris Hooks
Seconds after the early voting returns popped up on the laptops of the two dozen reporters at Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s campaign headquarters in Houston tonight, one portly, be-suited man wearing a Dewhurst sticker said to another, “I’m going to the margarita machine.”
You couldn’t blame him. Just after 7 p.m., the 12-year incumbent was losing to state Sen. Dan Patrick by 20 points. Three hours later, it would be a 30-point margin (65 percent to 35 percent). Supporters continued to trickle into the party as one news outlet after another called the race for Patrick just an hour after polls closed. Eventually, about 100 people filled up the place—high heels and suits and kids wearing red-white-and-blue bead necklaces fished from the centerpieces. The chili con queso and frozen margaritas flowed. The mood was upbeat, though that may have been because the large TV in the back of the room had switched from Fox News to a loop of Dewhurst’s more dignified commercials. One woman who’d volunteered for the campaign said everyone there knew Dewhurst would lose, but her eyes still filled with startled tears when I said media outlets were already calling the race.
A little before 9 p.m., Dewhurst arrived and gave a short, tender speech. Flanked by his wife, step daughter, he thanked supporters, and it didn’t seem rote. “I’m looking at a number of people in this room that I know over and over have voted for me over the years, and have believed in me, and I gotta tell you“—here, he choked up—“how much I appreciate that.”
He apologized to his wife “for putting you though all this,” stressed the importance of compromise, called for unity behind Patrick’s campaign. After the drawn-out ignominy of his defeat by Ted Cruz for U.S. Senate and then Patrick for his long-held spot, Dewhurst seemed relaxed, maybe even relieved, to be saying goodbye to all this. He’s the second-longest serving lieutenant governor in Texas history. And now his political career may well be over.
“I feel like over the last 10 years, we’ve had a shared vision, and that shared vision has left Texas a better place than we found it,” he said. “And at the end of the day, that’s all you can ask.” —Emily DePrang
During the 2003 legislative session, I watched a first-term state senator named Bob Deuell stand on the Texas Senate floor and argue that rape victims shouldn’t be exempted from the new abortion restrictions the senators were about to pass. No exemptions for rape victims is a pretty out-there position—even within the pro-life movement.
That wasn’t unusual. When he was elected in 2002, as the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey recently recounted, many people in the Capitol referred to him as a “crazy conservative.” I’ve never heard anyone call Deuell a “liberal.” Until this year.
Tonight Bob Deuell could very well lose his seat in a GOP primary runoff for being too “liberal.” As of this writing, Deuell and his tea party challenger Bob Hall are basically deadlocked with 36 percent of the vote in. (As we wrote earlier, Hall has had legal problems is Florida, including allegations of spousal abuse.)
The notion that Deuell might get tossed for being too liberal is bizarre for most people who have watched his legislative career. Deuell hasn’t changed: During Wendy Davis’ filibuster last June, Deuell made intelligent, impassioned arguments for the pro-life position. Rather, the political landscape has changed around him.
Empower Texans—the Michael Quinn Sullivan, Tim Dunn outfit—has deemed Deuell not conservative enough for voting for the state budget. Meanwhile, one pro-life group, Texas Right to Life, has gone after Deuell with misleading ads (other pro-life groups have backed Deuell). His crime? He proposed what most observers would consider mild reforms to end-of-life statutes—designed to help doctors and families deal with the difficult time when medical care is no longer effective. Deuell would once have been praised for trying to forge compromise on a difficult but important issue. Now, he’s perhaps being run out of office.
Are these groups really opposing Deuell because his ideology isn’t conservative enough? Or because they can’t control him? —Dave Mann
Cleburne farmer Jim Hogan, the presumptive Democratic nominee for ag commissioner who raised zero dollars in his non-campaign campaign, says he “don’t get a whole lot excited about politics” but is “humbled” by his victory over Kinky Friedman tonight. He doesn’t plan to do change anything now that he’s facing off against the GOP nominee, probably former state Rep. Sid Miller, who ran on a platform that focused more on abortion than ag issues.
“Tomorrow, I’m going to get up and go to work,” he told me. “That ain’t funny. That’s just what i’m going to do.” —Forrest Wilder
Hogan says he’s met Miller but declined to say anything about his suitability as ag commissioner. “I’m not a buddy buddy but we’ve met at sales barns,” he said.
“It is what it is. Whoever wins wins.”
Hogan said he doesn’t plan on doing any debates. “No, I’m no debater, I’m a farmer. I’ve got too many ‘aints and ‘ahs’… He’s been in the Legislature; I’ve been on a farm.”
The Associated Press has called the GOP race for attorney general for Ken Paxton, the state senator from McKinney who was fined for violating state securities law. Paxton handily bested opponent Dan Branch, following an onslaught of ads that depicted Branch as a “liberal”—one of the more absurd intra-GOP allegations made in the runoffs. Paxton’s problems with the laws of the state of Texas evidently did not deter Republican runoff voters from selecting him as the state’s top lawyer.— Forrest Wilder
With a match-up now certain between Democrat Leticia Van de Putte and tea partier Dan Patrick, the Democrats are already moving into general election campaign mode. And judging from the statement from the Texas Democratic Party, it’s going to be a bruiser: “Dan Patrick is a pathological liar. But don’t take my word for it, Lt. Governor Dewhurst has been saying it for months. Someone with a record of vile, toxic rhetoric is simply unfit to lead our great state. As a Senator, pharmacist, former small business owner and mother of 6, Leticia Van de Putte is the leader Texans deserve.” —Forrest Wilder
With 47 percent of the precincts in in House District 10, T.J. Fabby, who decided to use the last week of his campaign to remind people that a Muslim had donated to his opponent’s campaign, is behind his “establishment” opponent by 10 points. He joins Philip Eby in House District 58, behind by a similar margin, and Chart Westcott in House District 108, behind by almost 50. All three were house candidates supported by a coalition seeking to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus: It doesn’t appear to be doing very well.—Chris Hooks
The Texas Tribune just called the 2014 Republican primary for lt. gov. for Dan Patrick. Patrick’s victory in the primary is a remarkable moment: As the favorite to win the general election in November, Patrick will be the most right-wing politician ever elected to statewide office in Texas in the modern era. And he’ll have enormous power to influence state government. It’s going to a bumpy ride.—Chris Hooks
Could an accused wife-abuser and tax cheat beat longtime state Sen. Bob Deuell? Maybe! Bob Hall is up 51.15 to Deuell’s 48.84 in early voting. Perhaps more troubling for Deuell is the fact that Hall’s lead is stronger in vote-rich Dallas county, where he’s up by almost ten points. — Chris Hooks
In the last weeks of the primary, the question on everyone’s mind: Could Dewhurst turn this around? Early voting is in in many Texas counties, and the answer seems to be “not likely.” Across the state, Patrick is nearly 20 points ahead. Look at the county level, and things are even worse for the Dew. In Harris County, Dewhurst is down 45 points. In Tarrant County, he’s down 35. In Dallas, 10. Not an auspicious start.—Chris Hooks
Many Democratic runoff voters have noted how sad the ballot looks today. All the action, or almost all, is on the Republican side and Democrats are left with some pretty depressing choices. So far, with early voting totals in, Jim Hogan—the Cleburne farmer who refuses to campaign—is leading Kinky Friedman, the humorist and songwriter who’s loathed by many Democrats for his opportunistic runs at public office, 54 percent to 46 percent. Of course it’s hard to say what’s worse: the joke candidate or the candidate who jokes.
On the bright side: The LaRouche Democrat who wants to impeach Obama, Kesha Rogers, is getting demolished by wealthy dentist David Alameel, 73 percent to 27 percent.— Forrest Wilder
3:27 p.m.: Today, Democrats and Republicans will finally get clarity on the slate they’ll run in November. In the runoffs today, we’ll see a number of high-profile Republican rivalries come to a thrilling conclusion, we’ll learn a little bit about what the Legislature will look like in 2015, and we’ll see if the Democrats can move past two embarrassing results from the March primary.
Up and down the Republican slate, each runoff falls into a predictable dichotomy. One candidate is pretty far to the right, and the other is slightly less far to the right.
There’s the title fight, the GOP lite guv race between state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Katy) and the incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Patrick’s the heavy favorite. He came in first in the March 4 primary, and he’s had the momentum and support of many of the state’s conservative groups. But a couple weeks of dirty attacks and surreal ad exchanges have muddied the waters a bit. If Dewhurst pulls it out tonight, it would be a real shock. His supporters have taken to sending fake flyers around the state from the apparently fictitious “United Texas Tea Party,” suggesting he’s the kind of conservative who’s in line with Ken Paxton, Wayne Christian and Sid Miller. Those three, along with Patrick, fill out the tea party slate for the four statewide seats on the Republican ballot.
Recently, Ken Paxton, who’s standing for attorney general, was revealed to have taken part in a series of shady and potentially illegal financial deals last decade (to say nothing of the fact that he invested in a fraudulent business scheme run by a guy who claimed to have found Noah’s Ark). He now faces the prospect of facing felony charges and possible disbarment during the general election, and he’s been hiding from the media for the last several weeks—but that still might not be enough to save Dan Branch, the more moderate figure in the race. Branch has the support of the establishment, but relentless, untrue characterizations of him as a “union lobbyist” and “liberal” who touts the NARAL line on abortion have taken a toll.
Sid Miller, the walking caricature who’s the favorite for agriculture commissioner in the race against former state Rep. Tommy Merritt, has Ted Nugent as his campaign treasurer and a relative lack of agriculture experience. He’s centered his campaign around abortion and other red meat issues, making explicit he was doing so in part because ag commissioner is a stepping stone to other statewide office. His aide also accused Merritt of having sex with a prostitute in the Capitol parking garage when he was in the Legislature. Texas farmers can look forward to another four years of expert, technocratic stewardship at the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Then there’s the Railroad Commission runoff between Wayne Christian and Ryan Sitton. Sitton is the kind of oil and gas guy who typically gets elected to the Texas Railroad Commission: He founded an engineering company that inspects oilfield equipment, and raised eyebrows when he expressed his intention to stay at the company even if he won a spot on the commission. Christian, on the other hand, is an ideologue. (He also invested in that scheme with the guy who claimed to have found Noah’s Ark.) And he has the backing of all the right conservative groups, which normally means success in a low-information race like this.
There’s also two congressional runoffs we’re watching—one to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Clear Lake), and one to resolve an unexpectedly potent challenge to longtime U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, (R-Rockwall).
The latter challenge sees Hall facing newcomer John Ratcliffe, whose campaign began gingerly hinting that Hall was too old to serve—he’s 91—and has been stepping ever closer to just saying it. Ratcliffe recently called Hall’s age “something that the voters are concerned about.” Ratcliffe wasn’t supposed to make it to a runoff. Regardless of whether he wins tonight, he’s a rising Republican star who could be the favorite to win the seat in 2016 if Hall declines to run again.
In Congressional District 36, Stockman’s old haunt, former Woodville mayor Brian Babin faces a strong challenge from Ben Streusand, the tea party-aligned candidate. Recently, their campaigns have been engaged in a brawl over who’s more supportive of homeschooling—even though both homeschooled their kids. There’s also the fact that Babin occasionally presided over tax increases as a mayor.
The Legislative Races
Down the ticket in legislative runoffs, the pattern is much the same. There’s an important runoff in Senate District 10, Wendy Davis’ seat, where tea party organizer Konni Burton looks set to triumph over a local doctor named Mark Shelton. Burton has a fiery past as a right-wing organizer, and if she won, she’d be the favorite over the Democrat, Libby Willis. Burton might be the most conservative state senator next session, which, given the likely composition of the chamber, would really be saying something, especially since she’d take over for Wendy Davis. Shelton, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy noted, has taken to characterizing groups like the Texas Society of Anesthesiologists Political Action Committee as the “grassroots,” which is not a good sign in a Republican primary.
And there’s state Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville,) who finds himself seriously threatened by Bob Hall, a tea party candidate accused of both large-scale tax cheating and of physical and sexually abusing his ex-wife. The revelations against Hall emerged after the March primary, but the groups supporting Hall, including Empower Texans, have doubled down in their antipathy toward Deuell.
Then there’s a number of state House races that have seen fierce competition between one candidate backed by the conservative purity groups trying to oust House Speaker Joe Straus, and their opponents, who inevitably get pegged as members of the “establishment.” Three of the races are for districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a traditional hotbed of conservative politics in the state.
In House District 58, the anti-Straus faction is represented by Philip Eby, whose increasingly off-the-rails campaign culminated last week with one volunteer slapping the campaign manager of his opponent, DeWayne Burns. Burns has tried going after Eby’s out-of-district funding and supporter, including the Midland oilman Tim Dunn.
In House District 10, there’s T.J. Fabby, who’s in a runoff against John Wray to replace retiring state Rep. Jim Pitts. Fabby started off as an irreverent iconoclast with a libertarian bent who supported legalizing marijuana, but the campaign’s taken a darker turn. Recently, Fabby accused Wray of taking money from a Muslim. “Here we have a espoused believer of Islam that’s not just backing a little bit of money, but lots of money to these politicians,” Fabby told the Dallas Morning News. “It’s something that people need to be made aware of.”
And there’s Chart Westcott, the anti-Straus coalition’s candidate in House District 108. He’s running against Morgan Meyer. Westcott’s also kicked up a storm lately—he falsely accused Meyer of convictions for drunk driving, including using a fake mug shot of Meyer on his mailers. Westcott’s also been sending odd mailers around the district hitting Meyer over immigration, including a ticket good for “FREE DE FACTO AMNESTY: Good for any illegal immigrant. Never Expires. No fine print. Bring your friends!”
That Other Party
Lastly, there’s that other political party. They’re—it’s on the tip of my tongue… The Democrats. If you’re voting in the Democratic primary runoff, you’re helping to bail state Dems out of two huge unforced errors. Houstonia Magazine’s Dan Derozier raised the possibility that it “might be the shortest and saddest runoff ballot this state has ever seen.”
There’s the primary for U.S. Senate, which features Kesha Rogers, a member of the political cult of Lyndon LaRouche against Dallas dentist David Alameel, whose primary distinguishing feature is that he has a lot of money. Democratic Party leaders had no great options in the first round of the primary, but they wanted to keep Rogers out of the runoff. For whatever reason, they were unable to. Democrats have been mobilizing against Rogers with an increasingly unsubtle message, but that has failed to dissuade national media. The Washington Post recently gave a lengthy write-up to the “Texas Democratic Senate candidate who wants to impeach Obama,” finally getting around to mention Rogers was a LaRouche acolyte in the seventh paragraph.
For agriculture commissioner, the Democrats had at least one candidate they were plumping for in the first round, a San Antonio rancher named Hugh A. Fitzsimons III. Despite the backing of the Democratic establishment, he placed third. In his stead are Kinky Friedman, a merchandise-peddling musician you may have heard of who’s running on a pro-pot platform. He’s running against Jim Hogan, a Cleburne dairy farmer who, despite not campaigning, came in first, besting Friedman 38 percent to 37. In a recent essay, Hogan explained his strategy:
It has been reported that I am unknown and do not campaign. If you will pause for a moment and Google “Jim Hogan Texas Agriculture Commissioner,” I believe you will be amazed at the amount of information available about me. I think you will agree that those reports can be put to rest.
Democrats were intent to keep Friedman off the ballot. One cheeky foe registered texansforkinky.com—one letter away from Friedman’s official website, texasforkinky.com—and set it to redirect to Friedman’s endorsement of Gov. Rick Perry for president in 2012. But now, for many Democrats, he’s the least worst option.
For live coverage of tonight’s runoffs, stay tuned to this space. Our team is keeping a keen eye on the races and will post updates with results and analysis throughout the night.
Want to follow our reporters on Twitter? Dave Mann (@contrariandave) and Forrest Wilder (@forrest4trees) and Christopher Hooks (@cd_hooks) will be holding things down at Observer HQ. Emily DePrang (@deprangy) will be in Houston.