February 18, 2020

Lion's Share of Special Senate Race Winners
Had Texas House Seats as Stepping Stones

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

The field of contenders in a special Texas Senate election in the Austin area could feature a record number of candidates who already are elected officials at the state or local levels.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt was the first to surface on the record when she revealed in a tweet that she's contemplating a bid for the seat that Democratic State Senator Kirk Watson of Austin is giving up in two months. Austin City Council member Greg Casar took it a step farther when he said he's "very seriously considering" a race for a job that only four men and no women have held in the past 63 years. Austin Mayor Steve Adler is a potential contender in a special Senate District 14 contest that will be held in the next few months.

But the local leaders who are eyeing possible SD 14 bids might be no match for rivals who have the inherent benefit of running as sitting state representatives based on the track recoird of special Senate elections in Texas since the start of the current century.

While there have been exceptions, the potential Senate contenders with the best odds at the outset could come from a group that includes Democratic State Reps. Gina Hinojosa, Donna Howard, Celia Israel and Eddie Rodriguez. All four would be strong candidates. Howard confirmed that she's exploring a possible Senate race that Rodriguez said he's seriously considering. Hinojosa could have an early edge on paper with Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa as her father.

If history is a guide, the eventual winner of a potential House colleague competition could feel reasonably confident about winning the special SD 14 election that will most likely require overtime given the strength and depth of the field that's going to shape up in the next week or two.

State representatives have won the last five special Texas Senate elections. Three of the last five special elections for the upper chamber here have ended in runoffs with two state House members on the final fight card. State representatives have emerged victorious in seven of 10 special Senate contests that have been held in Texas in the past two decades with at least one Texas House member in the initial field.

State Senators Carol Alvarado of Houston and Jose Menendez of San Antonio claimed their current posts when they'd been representatives and defeated fellow House Democrats in special battles for the east wing in 2018 and 2015. GOP State Senators Brandon Creighton of Conroe, Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Charles Perry of Lubbock had been House members when they won promotions across the rotunda in special votes. Creighton beat a fellow House Republican in overtime in his first Senate campaign.

Two former state senators - Republican Kyle Janek of Houston and Democrat Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio - also used House seats as springboards to the upper chamber with first-round victories in special Senate races in 2002 and 1999. Van de Putte's closest rival in the special Senate battle with four foes had been a Democratic colleague in the House at the time.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Houston disrupted the trend seven years ago as a former Harris County commissioner who capped off a comeback with a victory in a special Texas Senate runoff duel with Alvarado - a Houston Democrat who'd been a member of the House at the time. Alvarado's persistence paid off in late 2018 when she beat Democratic State Rep. Ana Hernandez of Houston and two other candidates without the need for OT in a second Senate bid in a special election.

Former Senate Republican Kevin Eltife is the only other Texan in the past two decades to prevail in a special Senate contest as a local elected official in a field that included an opponent who'd been a member of the House at the time. Eltife, who'd been the mayor in Tyler, defeated a former Democratic state representative in a special runoff vote en route to his first Senate term in early 2004.

Current Republican State Senator Kel Seliger had been the Amarillo mayor before his election to the upper chamber in a special election runoff in 2004. But Seliger didn't have any state representatives as obstacles in his first winning Senate race that year.

The most glaring break with special Texas Senate election tradition came less than two years ago when Republican State Senator Pete Flores of Pleasanton captured his current post in a special overtime vote in a district where his initial competition included a current Democratic representative and a former House Democrat who'd been favored to win the runoff. Flores had been a state game warden before moving a Senate seat to the GOP column in the special battle when Democrats had been divided and distracted.

GOP State Senators Brian Birdwell of Granbury and Joan Huffman of Houston won their current posts in special elections that had no current or former representatives on the ballot. Huffman had prior elected experience as a state district judge in Harris County before her initial Senate victory in a special election in 2008. Birdwell was elected to the upper chamber initially in 2010 when he eliminated a former Republican senator in a special runoff vote.

No state representatives had been running in a special Senate election that Republican Craig Estes won in a runoff in 2001. But current State Senator Pat Fallon of Frisco had been a House Republican when he ousted Estes in the GOP primary election two years ago.

The state House has proven to be more a breeding ground for future special Senate election winners than elected positions in cities and counties have been in contemporary Texas. But Austin is a different universe from the rest of the state as a city in the same league of liberal with deep-blue bastions like Chicago and Boston.

As the two highest-ranking local officials in the Capital City, Adler and Eckhardt could get significant boosts in potential Senate bids from a substantial amount of free publicity that they've garnered in rhetorical warring with Republican Governor Greg Abbott in recent months.

Adler is a former Senate staffer who will be barred by local term limits from running for mayor again when his second term expires in three years. Eckhardt is in the midst of a second term as well as the first female leader of the Travis County commissioners court. Casar has received substantial attention as well as the council's most progressive member who'd had key roles in fights with the governor on state-imposed immigration restrictions and the city's liberal polices for dealing with the homeless population here.

GOP State Senators Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, Bryan Hughes of Mineola, Charles Schwertner of Georgetown and Larry Taylor of Friendswood all had the House as a training ground for eventual stints across the rotunda. Democratic State Senators Eddie Lucio Jr. of San Benito, Borris Miles of Houston and John Whitmire of Houston also served in the House before promotions to their current positions.

Austin trial lawyer Adam Loewy also has indicated an interest in a possible SD 14 race in the special election that Abbott will set for this spring or summer.

Watson - a former Austin mayor who lost to Abbott in the Texas attorney general's race in 2002 - has represented SD 14 for 13 years. Austin Democrat Gonzalo Barrientos held the SD 14 seat for 22 years before his retirement in 2007 cleared the way for Watson. Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin was the state senator here for a dozen years before passing the torch to Barrientos in 1985.

Barrientos had been a House member for 10 years before a promotion to the east wing. Democrat Charles Herring represented SD 14 for 16 years before Doggett took over.


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