March 16, 2018
Best Incumbent Campaign
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Associated Republicans of Texas
More than 100 years had come and gone since the Republicans had won a major statewide election in Texas by the time John Tower summoned several dozen party loyalists to a motel in Dallas in 1974 to start plotting a GOP resurrection in a state that the Democrats had all but owned since the end of Reconstruction. More than 1.5 million votes had been cast in the Democratic primary election when only 69,000 Texans voted across the aisle in round one that year. The number of Democratic primary voters jumped by 2.5 million in the next major statewide election in 1978 - an increase of 17 percent. But the most telling sign of the long-term political future of Texas came when the GOP turnout more than doubled when 158,000 voters participated in the state's Republican primary election that year.
Tower had been widely regarded as a political fluke since a 1961 special election victory that he couldn't have accomplished under normal electoral circumstances. But the political landscape here experienced a significant shift in 1978 when Bill Clements made history as the first Republican governor to be elected in Texas in more than a century with less than 50 percent of the vote while Tower won a fourth term in the upper house of Congress with 50.3 percent.
While Tower holds the distinction of being the father of the modern-day Grand Old Party in the Lone Star State, the group that he and his allies conceived 44 years ago in Big D was arguably a bigger factor in the Republicans' rise to power here than any singular individual could have been. But the Associated Republicans of Texas that the U.S. Senate's only southern Republican in the early 1960s inspired has put its adaptation abilities on display in recent years in a state where it finally found it unrealistic to stay neutral in primary elections like it had done for four decades.
The organization known as ART ventured on to the GOP primary battlefield for the first time in 2016 when it posted a 13-3 record in Texas House contests with two incumbents losing in runoffs after a candidate who it backed in an open race falling short in the initial election. ART didn't take aim at any incumbents Republicans - however - at the primary polls two years ago. But ART shed the gloves for the first time for the primary election in 2018 when it solidified its status as an establishment cornerstone and critical player in the Speaker Joe Straus leadership team's most successful showing yet at the first-round ballot box.
The Associated Republicans of Texas winning percentage in last week's vote wasn't as high as the record that it compiled in the primary election and runoff combined in 2016 when the candidates who it supported prevailed in 81 percent of the races that the group entered. But ART has a chance to improve its mark for the current primary season to 78 percent if one incumbent and three House hopefuls who it's rallied behind claim overtime victories this spring in races that they all appear to have decent shots to win. ART scored a huge win when State Senator Kel Seliger of Amarillo put fears of a runoff to bed with an outright primary win over two major foes who ran to the right in round one. The group came close without a cigar in a Senate race that a Republican state representative lost by a narrow margin in a bid to unseat a first-term tea party lawmaker who survived with a major boost from Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
Sixteen of the 19 Straus incumbent allies who ART helped considerably staved off conservative challenges at the polls last week while another House Republican who the group favors - freshman State Rep. Scott Cosper of Killeen - is doing battle in a runoff with primary foe Brad Buckley. But Buckley appears to be cut more from the Straus team cloth more than the tea party mold - so a runoff win by the challenger in House District 54 wouldn't be a painful loss for ART in a district where the only staunch conservative failed to advance to overtime. One of the House Republicans who lost despite ART's support faced an insurmountable obstacle in the form of a foe's massive war chest while a second incumbent that the group backed fell short in a race that a rival with establishment potential ended up winning. ART won two and lost two in open races for the House in the opening round. Republican contenders who've had the group in their corners have shots to close out contests in overtime in battles that Cody Harris of Palestine, Ben Leman of Iola and Reggie Smith are waging for seats in the Capitol's west wing. It will come as little or no surprise if ART intervenes on behalf of two more GOP contenders in runoff battles with tea party-certified opponents for nominations in House races.
House leaders relied heavily on major-league establishment allies like the political committees for the Texas Association of Realtors, the Texas Medical Association, educators and other statewide professional groups in the face of a record amount of opposition from hardline conservatives who'd been recruited by anti-Straus forces. While ART made some double-digit cash donations to candidates that the outgoing speaker's team favored, the vast majority of the money that it spent went to services that it coordinated in collaboration with House leaders like direct mail and other forms of advertising and other needs like polling and voter contact. A substantial amount of the credit for the ART effort this year has to go to the governing board co-chairmen John Nau of Houston and Hector De Leon of Austin.
But this was a team effort personified - and the numbers help put the story into perspective. After raising less than $1.4 million and spending almost $1.1 million before the primary vote in the 2016 election cycle, ART generated more than $3.1 million from members donors during the 14-month period that ended a week before the March 6 election. The group shelled substantially more than $2 million in the same time span in the current cycle. While John Tower wouldn't have been pleased at all with the bitter in-fighting in the GOP in Texas today, he probably would have been proud of the group that was born under his direction for the sake of party unity and growth for taking a strong stand this year in a very different world.
The Best of the Election selections for 2018 Texas primary contests will be unveiled this month in separate installments for several different categories.