A special election in Senate District 4 on Saturday provided a quick fix for Texans with election fever worried about holding out until the May 27 primary runoffs. The seat was held until recently by state Sen. Tommy Williams, who abruptly stepped down in October to accept a healthy paycheck with the Texas A&M University System. No candidate won 50 percent, so the district’s election-fatigued residents face a runoff in August. But this weekend’s results were surprising in their own way.
SD 4 is an oddly-shaped creature that ranges from Port Arthur to just outside Galveston, before turning up toward The Woodlands north of Houston. The district has a strongly conservative bent, so it was unsurprising that only Republicans stood for the special election. Vying to replace Williams were four candidates, including state Rep. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), state Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands), and Gordy Bunch, a businessman and Coast Guard vet. The fourth, former state Sen. Michael Galloway, won less than 10 percent on election night.
Creighton won a little more than 45 percent, meaning that he’ll be heading to a runoff with second-place finisher Toth, who won a little under 24 percent. That’s not altogether surprising—Creighton buried his opponents by spending almost $547,000 in April, while Toth spent only $88,000 in the same period. And while he’s pretty far right himself, Creighton’s been willing to play the inside game as a state rep. He served as the chairman of the House GOP caucus, and he’s occasionally been described as an ally of House Speaker Joe Straus. He had access to funds, plenty of political allies and the support of House leadership.
But that’s exactly the kind of candidate that’s been in danger of losing primary races this year, mainly thanks to the influence of anti-Straus groups like Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Empower Texans. And that’s why it’s a little surprising that Creighton did so well—and doubly so that his main opponent, Toth, did so poorly. Less than two points separated Toth and Bunch, an enthusiastic and energetic candidate who had nonetheless never held state office. For part of the night, it even looked like Toth would place third and get knocked out altogether.
Toth, one of the hip-firing freshmen who rode into the House in 2012, seemed to relish his office primarily for his ability to say “no” at increasing decibel levels. He threw as many firecrackers as he could into the legislative mix, including a bill that would have nullified federal gun laws. He achieved very little. Which made him an ideal fit for Empower Texans, who credited “his record as a legislative fighter and the response of grassroots voters.”
But in the end, Toth nearly got denied a spot in the runoff by Bunch, a friendly Coast Guard vet. This primary season has seen the more “establishment” figure drubbed in most contested Senate races—from state Sen. Carona in Dallas, to the challengers facing state Sen. Donna Campbell in New Braunfels and tea party organizer Konni Burton in Fort Worth. This was a rare exception—even if Creighton’s not exactly a voice for reason himself. Toth could still win, of course—the recent events in the attorney general’s race show anything can happen in Texas’ long runoffs. Creighton, though, enters the summer a heavy favorite.