June 1, 2012

Last Speaker's Race Loser Wins Big in More Ways
than One as Parting Shot on First Round Honor Roll

Best Campaign Performances Include East Texas Pair in Similar Boats,
NFL Grad and Veteran House Democrat Who Shakes Off Dust in Style

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

The Texas political community spent several months on the edge of its seat waiting anxiously to see how the spring primary election would affect state House Speaker Joe Straus and a leadership team that's been under fire from the right since the day he began assembling it three years ago. The mainstream media in the meantime devoted the most ink and airtime to a U.S. Senate race that emblemized the escalating power struggle between the GOP establishment and an ornery and energized conservative base that's referred to these days by the brand name Tea Party.

But in the most eccentric and competitive primary season on the legislative battlefield in four decades - with the House leadership fight as the top story line and closure in the U.S. Senate battle's first round still two months away - there's no shortage of irony in the fact that the biggest winner in round one is arguably a state representative who lost the last speaker's election and won't be around for the next one.

Sixteen months after a failed bid for House leader, State Rep. Ken Paxton of McKinney is taking his talents east of the rotunda with the Most Valuable Campaign on Capitol Inside's Best of the Primary list even though he had no chance of losing as the only Republican on the ballot in a race for an upcoming Texas Senate opening. The fact that Paxton waltzed untouched through the primary in a race for a seat that's open for the first time in 20 years in the most affluent and highly educated Senate district in Texas is more of a testament to political strength and popularity than any margin of victory could ever be in that particular arena. But the free pass alone in a race that the GOP nominee will win in November when he trounces a politically unknown Democrat isn't why Paxton tops the primary honors list. The way Paxton spent his spare time sealed the deal for the nine-year House veteran who'll be one of the Senate's most conservative members by far at this time next year.

Paxton didn't spend the past few months in a cruise-control mode like others might have done with victory guaranteed. The mild-mannered Baylor grad who was Tea Party long before Tea Party was cool seized on the incredibly rare opportunity he had as an unopposed Senate contender to do something that could have a major effect on the leadership battle in the chamber that he's leaving. he's leaving. Paxton gambled significant political capital on a half-dozen House races in his suburban stomping ground - and he hit the jackpot when almost all but one of the Republican candidates he backed either won outright or landed spots in a July 31 runoff election.

Working in tandem in some races with longtime consultant Kevin Brannon, Paxton's involvement proved to be invaluable for House primary winners like Scott Turner of Frisco, Ron Simmons of Carrollton, Pat Fallon of Frisco and Scott Sanford of McKinney in the battle for the seat in the district that former Straus challenger who'll be a state senator soon has represented for the past 10 years. Paxton jumped in another open Collin County race on House hopeful Jeff Leach's behalf shortly before the end of regulation in a move that helped send that battle into overtime. Paxton recorded robo calls for some conservative House candidates, appeared as a special featured guest at events for others and offered helping hands in a variety of other ways in gestures that the Republicans who benefited from the association and effort couldn't appreciate more.

All of the Republicans who've won or will win primaries thanks to Paxton's assistance will head into the summer as representatives-elect or prohibitive favorites in fall fights with Democrats who'll barely be token opposition at best. And every one of them will owe Paxton a handsome debt of gratitude that will be worth untold millions in Tea Party karma as he makes the transition to the east wing. With several of the candidates who Paxton's backing replacing Republicans who'd been Straus loyalists, it's conceivable that the loser in the last speaker's election could have more influence over the leadership battle in 2013 when he's no longer a House member than he did as a candidate for the job that Straus hopes to win for a third time in January.

Honorable Mention Most Valuable Texas Senate Campaign: Craig Estes (SD 30 Republican), Kelly Hancock (SD 9 Republican), Larry Taylor (SD 11 Republican)

Lon Burnam
Best Campaign - Texas House Incumbent

As a veteran legislator who hadn't had a primary opponent since his first state House race 16 years ago, State Rep. Lon Burnam had seen more than a few colleagues from both parties fall victim to the complacency that auras of invincibility can breed when elected officials are rarely or never challenged back home. So the Fort Worth Democrat began brushing the cobwebs off his campaign so it could hit the ground running when Carlos Vasquez entered the House District 90 race as expected last fall.

Vasquez posed a serious threat as a challenger with considerable name identification as a Fort Worth school trustee in a heavily-Hispanic House district where there were more Latinos than ever on an interim map that a federal court approved earlier this year. Vasquez brought an added dimension to the race as an openly gay candidate in a day and age when that personal detail has the potential to be more of an asset than baggage in a Democratic primary in a district that's represented by one of the party's most unabashedly liberal members.

But Burnam decided early on that he wasn't going to lose because he'd taken anything for granted - and he moved swiftly in the wake of the challenger's emergence to assemble a top-notch team of political professionals that included James Aldrete as the top outside consultant, pollster Jeff Smith and Jakob Stewart as campaign manager. Stewart worked as a field representative for Chet Edwards in Congress. Smith has been the go-to guy on polls for years for Texas Democrats - and Aldrete has been one of the most successful Democratic consultants in Texas for more than a decade and its premier campaign strategist by far in Hispanic majority districts.

Burnam's inherent high-energy level and unbridled passion for the progressive causes he's advocated tirelessly made the adviser's job easier as a candidate who took the initiative to do as much of the block-walking as possible himself in a central part of the city that the campaign was determined to blanket. As an blonde-haired Anglo, Burnam faced a critical initial task that required him to reach out earnestly across ethnic lines to old and new voters in a district where almost eight of every 10 residents are Hispanics, 10 percent are African-American and less than 14 percent are white. The challenge would be all the more complicated by a coordination effort between his opponent and the leading Hispanic candidate in a fiercely-competitive congressional race in a district that completely engulfed HD 90. Burnam countered early reports about Vaquez's support from Hispanic leaders by rallying the majority of local Democratic officials and key activists behind his re-election effort. Last but not least, Burnam had to be ready to push back when the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC foot the bill for almost $40,000 worth of attack mail on Vasquez's behalf in the final stretch of the race.

The proactive mindset and old-fashion hard work paid off when Burnam beat Vasquez with almost 52 percent of the vote in a race that probably wouldn't have been as close if TLR hadn't dropped in near the end.

Honorable Mention: Tracy King (HD 80 Democrat), James White (HD 19 Republican)

Scott Turner
Best Campaign - Texas House Open Race

Richardson native Scott Turner had played defensive back for three teams in the National Football League over an eight-year period before he decided to take up another contact sport as a candidate for Congress in California in 2006. Turner could have thrown in the towel after receiving less than two percent of the vote in the special election in the Golden State in his debut as a political candidate. But Turner is a motivational speaker - and he apparently buys into the positive attitude he preaches to audiences that occasionally include the congregation at the largest church in the area where he'll be a state representative come January.

Turner, who'll become the third African-American Republican in the Texas House when he's sworn into office, appeared to face longer odds at the outset than just about any other candidate who claimed victory in the primary election this week in open races for the Legislature. The Frisco resident had to overcome the inherent advantages that GOP rival Jim Pruitt had as a candidate who's well-known as a former state district judge in Rockwall County where the number of established Republican voters was significantly higher than in Turner's home base in Collin County.

Turner's camp did the math and realized that he wasn't going to win if the race for a brand new House District 33 seat became a regional turf fight between voters north of the Collin-Rockwall line and those on the map below it. So Turner decided to take the fight directly into the heart of his opponent's backyard - and with an infectious personality that makes him seem immediately loveable to people that meet him - the former gridiron professional spent several months shaking every hand within reach in Rockwall County where he had to fare reasonably well to have any real prayer for victory.

Turner customized mailers for voters in his opponent's home county with quotes that he rounded from Rockwall Republicans who'd been instant supporters from the moment they'd met at GOP club gatherings, chamber of commerce events and other community get-togethers that he made a point to attend whenever the opportunity for social interaction presented itself.

With veteran GOP strategist Kevin Brannon of nearby Allen as his guide, Turner scored endorsements from every conservative group and activist imaginable to go with support he'd received from business interests and local officials in various parts of the suburban district. The new district included areas that had been represented by conservative Republican State Reps. Jodie Laubenberg and Ken Paxton for almost 10 years. While Paxton pitched his support to Turner in early May, the endorsement that Laubenberg made on his behalf was critical because she'd been Rockwall's state representative until now and had been highly popular with Republicans as one of the Legislature's most conservative stalwarts.

Turner worked Rockwall County religiously right up to the time the last votes were cast - and he was at a polling place there when it closed Tuesday night several hours before the final tally showed him as the GOP primary winner in HD 33 with more than 58 percent of the vote districtwide. Turner reportedly won almost half the precincts in Rockwall County on his trip to the end zone.

Honorable Mention: Mary Gonzalez (HD 75 Democrat), Mary Ann Perez (HD 144 Democrat), Ron Simmons (HD 65 Republican), Chris Turner (HD 101 Democrat)

Trent Ashby & Chris Paddie
Best Campaign - Texas House Challenger

The GOP primary winners in a pair of East Texas House races could be Speaker Joe Straus' saving grace at a time when the lower chamber is taking a turn to the right. But Trent Ashby and Chris Paddie couldn't have seemed more alike if they'd been identical twins than they did on paper as candidates in terms of the political dynamics they encountered and the biographies they brought to their respective races. Paddie and Ashby appeared to have winning potential from the moment they launched bids to unseat Republican State Reps. Wayne Christian of Center and Marva Beck of Centerville.

Paddie, a radio station owner and talk show host, had been serving as the mayor of Marshall when he announced his plans to take on Christian in a district that had undergone major alterations. Ashby had similar credentials as an insurance agent who'd been the Lufkin School Board president when he embarked on a bid to oust Beck from the House as she sought a second term in a district that bears little resemblance to the area she currently represents. Both challengers live in the largest cities in the districts where the incumbents reside in much smaller towns. Beyond the inherent geographical advantages and the strength of the challengers' individual resume, Ashby and Paddie had the potential to fare well in their debut races for the Legislature because they had natural talent, proven political savvy, looked the part and sounded good.

But victory wouldn't come easy for either one of them in battles against incumbents who had their own unique reasons to be optimistic as well. Christian - after all - was a conservative icon who'd been a darling of Tea Party activists as someone who'd been crusading for the values they embraced long before the Republican right's new brand name was conceived. Christian had seniority as a legislator who'd been the most vocal voice in Texas for the Christian Coalition when it was still in vogue - and he'd led the Conservative Coalition in the lower chamber before Straus allies muscled him out of the position so they could replace him with one of their own. The speaker's team had little use for Christian as one of the main instigators of a revolt that put the House leader's bid for a second term in jeopardy before he nailed down another win. But Christian approached public service as a mission - and the sticks and stones that were tossed his way couldn't shut him up or back him down a bit. Christian had a tangible asset with Republican State Rep. Bryan Hughes of Mineola as a staunch conservative brother in arms who'd been a popular representative in the Marshall area before losing Harrison County to Christian on the map that Straus lieutenants drafted and a federal court approved.

The polls showed Christian with a comfortable lead in the weeks leading up to the primary election - and there was speculation that the apparent lead was due in large part to the eloquent sales pitch that Hughes was making on his conservative comrade's behalf.

But Paddie was quietly putting together an effective grassroots turnout effort while Christian relied substantially on television and radio advertising in an attempt to portray the challenger as candidate who'd been recruited by big Austin special interests to represent them. And Paddie was able to market himself as fiscal conservative because the city he led hadn't had to raise taxes on his watch - and the best the incumbent's camp could do at that point was to attack the challenger for not reducing taxes while serving as mayor. While Christian had scored endorsements from GOP heavyweights like Attorney Greg Abbott and Comptroller Susan Combs, Paddie got a significant boost in the campaign's late stages when Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson pitched his support to him based in part on legislation that Christian had pushed that would have given him a tax break on property he owned on the Texas coast. All of the above put Paddie in position to win almost one-third of the vote in Christian's home base of Shelby County - and that's what put the challenger over the top.

While Beck didn't have the conservative reputation and credentials that Christian could tout, she had a weapon of mass destruction in nuclear weapon in the armory with the Texans for Lawsuit Reform in her camp for the battle with Ashby. TLR had put Beck into position to ride a national wave to victory over über-powerful House Democrat Jim Dunnam in 2010 - and the state's most well-armed PAC pumped $80,000 more into her campaign coffers for TV and radio ads and other needs for this year's primary in her first re-election race.

Ashby was a bigger target than Paddie as a result of votes that raised local taxes as a school trustee. But when Beck hammered Ashby on tax hikes, the challenger's campaign rewrote the book on how to respond to opposition attacks with the strategy it employed to counter the criticism on the dreaded T word.

Ashby didn't make the mistake of attempting to blunt the attacks single-handedly. He had most of the Lufkin school board members if not all of them rally to his defense with a joint statement that accused Beck of twisting the facts on the tax votes out of context in a dishonest and desperate attempt to capitalize on them. The school trustees echoed Ashby's assertion that the board had authorized the use of bonds for facilities expansions as a formality that was required after voters backed the financing package initially.

The House District 57 race appeared to be headed for a photo finish before Ashby surged to victory with 58 percent of the primary vote. Paddie, who was supposed to lose based on the polling, unseated Christian with the support of 52 percent of the votes in House District 9.

Ashby and Paddie were strong natural candidates who were even better with the proven professional guidance they had with Austin strategist Todd Smith and the consulting firm Murphy Turner & Associates respectively as campaign advisers.

And now - after losing three committee chairs in the first election with two more in danger in the runoff - the speaker of the House can breathe a little easier thanks to the political wins who aren't really related out in East Texas.

Honorable Mention: Steve Toth (HD 15 Republican)

Annie's List
Best Organizational Effort

As Texas trial lawyers who are usually allies burned more money on Republican primary races this spring than they'd ever done in the past, the Democratic sorority Annie's List dropped a record amount of campaign cash on first-round battles on the side of the aisle where it plays exclusively.

But Annie's List - unlike the lawyers and their bitter enemies in an ever-escalating war over tort reform - emerged from the May 29 primary election without any significant blemishes on its record for 2012 for all practical purposes.

The group that only backs Democrats of the female variety reinforced its reputation as one of the most effective political action committee on the campaign landscape here when it rescued State Rep. Alma Allen of Houston from the jaws of defeat on top of several other notable accomplishments.

Annie's List provided cash and support services that gave House hopefuls Mary Edna Gonzalez of Clint, Mary Ann Perez of Pasadena and Toni Rose of Dallas the critical boosts they needed for outright victories in races that had appeared destined for runoffs not long ago. While the majority of women on the Annie's List slate exceeded expectations with wins in round one, the group's preferred contender topped 48 percent in a Fort Worth House race while the candidate it rallied behind in battle for the lower chamber in San Antonio advanced to overtime in one of the more impressive fields on the Democratic ballot in Texas in May.

House hopeful Nicole Collier looks like a shoo-in in the race to replace State Rep. Marc Veasey in the race for a Tarrant County seat he's giving up in favor of a congressional bid this year. Annie's List hopes for a perfect record in 2012 from this point will fizzle if San Antonio attorney Tina Torres fails to pull off a come-from-behind victory in a summer runoff after trailing former SA councilman Philip Cortez by five percentage points in the first vote. Even if Torres beats her male runoff rival, there's no guarantee she can prevail in a fight with freshman Republican State Rep. John Garza in the general election despite some redistricting tweaks that made the seat he's seeking again more winnable for the Democrats. But after securing a spot in a runoff in House District 117 when she received 117 more primary votes than a second opponent who's also a man, Torres is entering extra innings with some momentum.

Annie's List came out swinging hardest in the El Paso area House race where Gonzalez had appeared to be on track for a runoff with Democratic rival Hector Enriquez, a former Soccorro school trustee who'd been cultivating support in the Austin lobby before launching a bid to replace outgoing State Rep. Chente Quintanilla. But Gonzalez, who will become the second openly gay legislator ever in Texas when she's sworn in next year, scored a first-round knockout with 52 percent of the vote after Annie's List buried Enriquez under an avalanche of evidence about his past support for Republicans like George W. Bush and Rick Perry.

Perez, meanwhile, will have her hands full as well this fall in a battle with GOP nominee David Pineda in a redesigned Houston-area district that has swing potential on paper even though the Republican who represented it decided not to run again after a federal court made it more Democrat friendly. The problem for Annie's List in the competitive fall matches it enters is that they're certain to blow up into proxy fights between the plaintiffs bar and tort reform advocates. Annie's List money won't be worth as much when that happens.

From an official standpoint, Annie's List admits on its web site that it was losing side in a primary fight for a new seat in the Fort Worth area that former House Democrat Chris Turner will hold after beating ex-House colleague Paula Pierson and a third contender at the polls this week. But even though Annie's List had indeed endorsed Pierson, the relatively small money that that the group directed to her comeback campaign compared to the funds it contributed in years past could be interpreted as a passive sign of support for the winning candidate who doesn't qualify for financial assistance under its operating policy.

Annie's List is an obvious advocate for racial diversity among Democrats - and the group as a PAC isn't subject to laws that prohibit discrimination based on age, religion and gender. The restrictive nature of its support criteria keeps the group from spreading the money it raises too thinly even though its an invitation for howling from Democratic candidates who happen to be men in races against women on the Annie's List ticket. But the group has demonstrated once again that it's a potent force that's here to stay and growing stronger even as the party it's aligned with continues to shrink on the state level. Robert Jones has brought some stability to the group as its executive director for the past several years - and Annie's List has to be tickled that its current vice-chair happens to be Houston lawyer Amber Mostyn. If that name rings a bell, it's probably due to the fact that she's married to Steve Mostyn, the biggest Democratic contributor in Texas and one of the state's most successful trial lawyers. Mrs. Mostyn is no slouch herself when it comes to doling out political cash like she did in March with a $100,000 donation to Annie's List. So it's probably safe to assume that Annie's List won't be going broke anytime soon.

Honorable Mention: Citizen Leader PAC

Best of the Primary Part 2 - Coming Soon


Ken Paxton
Most Valuable Campaign

Lon Burnam
Best Incumbent Campaign

Scott Turner
Best Open Race Campaign

Chris Paddie
Best Challenger Campaign

Trent Ashby
Best Challenger Campaign

Mary E. Gonzalez
Best Organizational Effort

Amber Mostyn
Best Organizational Effort


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