March 12, 2018
Best Incumbent Campaign
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Texas Senate Campaign
The GOP Caucus in the Texas House has been bitterly divided between tea party conservatives and more traditional establishment colleagues who've controlled the chamber for most of the past decade. The majority party across the rotunda has two distinct factions as well - State Senator Kel Seliger and everyone else.
The former Amarillo mayor added a third brand to the list of GOP wings in the Lone Star State with a primary election victory in a race that appeared destined for overtime with two formidable foes taking shots at him from the right. Seliger demonstrated at the primary ballot box that he's an establishment lawmaker who's a Panhandle Republican first and foremost - and that he clearly isn't as vulnerable as the hard-liners had perceived him to be because he knows the territory that he's defending as well as anyone possibly could.
After alienating Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick last year as the only Senate Republican who dared to defy him on multiple major issues like property taxes and school vouchers, Seliger gave conservative detractors the ammunition they thought they needed to finally take him down in the primary election in 2018. Conservatives who've long considered Seliger to be an unapologetic moderate thought that the veteran legislator from northwest Texas would have little or no chance to survive the primary this year with Patrick leading the eventual funeral parade for the incumbent in Senate District 31. The lieutenant governor had warned Seliger during the 2017 session that the polling that he'd conducted in SD 31 found that the voters there favored the hot-button proposals in a hard-right agenda that the incumbent had refused to fully embrace. But Seliger knew that the Patrick polls were incapable of measuring how truly independent his conservative constituents always have been and why the folks in West Texas love their state senator despite some policy differences. Seliger above all knew beyond a doubt that a majority of the people who he represents in Austin have no use for outsiders trying to tell them how they should vote.
The lieutenant governor who's the Texas tea party king didn't rally officially behind either one of Seliger's initial primary opponents - Mike Canon and Victor Leal - a pair of West Texans who'd served as the mayors of Midland and Muleshoe respectively. But the prevailing sentiment inside the Austin beltway had been that Patrick would be ready to throw his massive muscle behind the challenger who advanced to a runoff that anti-Seliger conservatives had regarded as an inevitability before it failed to materialize. Conservatives had smelled blood after Seliger staved off a challenge from Canon in a 2014 primary contest that the incumbent won with only 52 percent of the vote. That prompted them to employ an increasingly popular boilerplate strategy that sought to send Seliger down the plank by forcing him into a runoff election that would be dominated by the hard right. As an Amarillo restaurant owner who'd been heavily involved in state and regional politics, Leal would ostensibly drain votes from Seliger in the north part of the district while Canon would carry the southern end of SD 31 that's anchored by the Permian Basin as a former high-ranking local elected official there. Canon secured the lion's share of endorsements from conservative activists and tea party forces as the heir apparent to one of the two overtime spots in SD 31 this spring. But the contest unfolded in Patrick's long shadow even though he did not endorse. And Leal appeared to be the lieutenant governor's stalking horse who had his high-powered Houston political consultant guiding the way in a district where a third-place finish would be tantamount to a win if he put a significant dent in the incumbent's support at the top of the state. Leal could ostensibly boost his total with support from Hispanics in a district where they account for almost 40 percent of the population. But Seliger saw the double-barrel approach as flawed from the start amid the theory that Leal would whittle more into Canon's conservative support than he'd siphon from the incumbent in a regional turf war.
Seliger found himself on the defensive in the closing stages of the race when Leal accused him of potentially illegal dealings with an Austin lobbyist and suggested that the incumbent was or would be under investigation by the Texas Ethics Commission. But Seliger countered with a detailed explanation that gave the impression that the allegations had been exaggerated and twisted for maximum shock value in the heat of a campaign. The attack failed to taint the reputation of an incumbent who'd long been viewed back at home as a model for honesty and integrity. Seliger effectively shaped the competition into a referendum on local control as the only senator who'd defended the once-sacred concept at a time when conservatives at the Capitol had declared war on Texas cities and counties. Canon won big in Midland and Ector counties as he'd expected to do. But Seliger topped the 60 percent mark in his home base of Randall and Potter counties despite the presence of a local foe on the ballot. And the incumbent crushed it out in the sticks with victories in 33 rural counties in a district where Canon only won a total of four counties including the two with the major population centers of Odessa and Midland. While Seliger claimed about 61 percent of the cumulative vote in Randall and Potter counties that the Amarillo area anchors, Canon received an almost identical combined share in Midland and Ector counties where about 4,000 fewer ballots were cast. But Seliger garnered 32 percent of the vote in Midland and Ector counties combined compared to a mere 15 percent that Canon landed in Randall and Potter counties where Leal was the primary runner up as planned with 24 percent. Leal was shutout nonetheless in the county victory count. The most telling measuring stick in the final primary analysis in SD 31 may be the fact that Seliger had only won 62 percent of the vote in Potter and Randall counties with Canon as his only opponent in 2014. That seems to confirm Seliger's original hypothesis about Leal having more of an adverse effect on Canon than the incumbent in the northern stretch of the district that will keep the Senate seat for four more years at least.
But Seliger's camp and his foes were still on the edge of their seats until the morning after the election when the incumbent survived his biggest test yet with 50.4 percent of the vote while Canon and Leal garnered 31 percent and 18 percent respectively. Canon has threatened to seek a recount that could force a second round vote if Seliger lost 336 votes and the total cast stayed the same. But the challenger may not be willing to bet much on that.
Anti-Seliger forces used the same tag-team game plan in a House race in the Panhandle that GOP State Rep. Ken King of Canadian won outright with less than 50.5 percent of the primary vote in a field with three contenders in another late-night thriller. The same conservatives might be scratching their heads now while wondering why they even bothered to field a challenge in another Republican primary contest that State Rep. Walter "Four" Price of Amarillo won with more than 78 percent. The first-round triumphs by Seliger, King and Price demonstrated that the definition of conservative in the part of the state where they live is very different than it is in the tea party's suburban haven.
The Best of the Election selections for 2018 Texas primary contests will be unveiled this month in separate installments for several different categories.