August 6, 2012

Texas Runoff Becomes Stage for Tea Party Tango
But Scattered Setbacks Prevent Landslide on Right

Conservatives Take Top Prize in Grand Slam Fashion with Cruz Victory
as Competing GOP Factions and Democrat Who Strayed Take Honors

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

The perfect storm began brewing more than a year ago when Republican state lawmakers approved redistricting plans that they knew Democrats would challenge in court with some degree of success. But the Republicans correctly assumed that they'd come out ahead in the battle over legislative and congressional boundaries even if a Democratic Party that had one foot in the grave in Texas managed to cut its losses at the federal courthouse.

What the largest GOP majority of all time in the Texas Legislature didn't realize at the time was that they'd set the stage for a 2012 primary election that would unfold in a way that no one at the Capitol could have possibly imagined when they cast their votes in the map battle. Not a soul under the pink granite dome back in the 2011 suspected that the most powerful legislative leader in the state - Republican Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst - would be planting the seeds for the demise of the U.S. Senate campaign he was planning to run when he gave his blessing to the remap package that Democrats were branding as blatantly illegal.

If anyone who'd been involved in state government could peer far enough into the future to see the potential impact that redistricting could have on the primary election and its timing in particular, it might have been a former appellate lawyer for the state named Ted Cruz. But Cruz didn't bother to tell anyone if he had the slightest clue that the legal fight on the new maps would string out the primary election in a way that would give his longshot U.S. Senate campaign an actual shot at winning. Cruz - after all - isn't a prophet even when it looks like he's walking on water like he did when he capped off the underdog race of all-time in Texas with a victory this week in a U.S. Senate Republican runoff that Dewhurst had been an all but prohibitive favorite to win a few months ago.

While Cruz may have surpassed Sarah Palin as the tea party's number one superstar at the national level, he made history in all sorts of ways here at home. The former state solicitor general - for starters - will become the first Hispanic to ever serve in one of the two highest-ranking elected posts in the state. That milestone is all the more incredible when considering that Cruz is a member of the GOP in a state where most Hispanics are still Democrats - and he's a conservative Republican on top of that in a party in which the vast majority of Latinos are moderates. And if that's not enough - Cruz is an American of Cuban descent unlike the lion's share of Hispanics in Texas whose genealogy has roots in Mexico.

But the most landmark accomplishment of all - more significant even than the magnitude of the odds that the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate overcame - is arguably the page of history that Cruz will write when he beats Democratic nominee Paul Sadler in the general election. Cruz is on track to become the first Texan since the 1800s to win a U.S. Senate seat in his debut as a candidate on the ballot. Barring a miraculous upset this fall, Cruz will become the second U.S. senator from Texas who's never held another elected office. While John Tower's first and only elected post was U.S. senator - a job that he won in a 1961 special election that broke the Democrats' stranglehold on statewide offices here - he'd unsuccessfully challenged Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson several months before the Republican's historic election.

From there you can rewind all the way to back to 1875 when Samuel Maxey was elected to the U.S. Senate as his first elective position. But Maxey, a former Confederate general who served 12 years in the upper house of Congress, was elected to the job by the Texas Legislature. And Maxey had lost a race for the U.S. House in the Democratic primary three years before state lawmakers sent him to Washington. Morgan C. Hamilton - the last Texan to win a U.S. Senate seat the first time he ran for elected office - had experience in government as an appointed state comptroller and high-ranking official in the Republic of Texas war department before his election as a U.S. senator in 1870 amid the fallout from Reconstruction.

Hamilton was an abolitionist who'd fought for the north in the Civil War before moving to Texas where he a major force in the Radical Republican faction that sought to disenfranchise anyone with obvious Confederate credentials. More than 140 years later, Democrats and many moderate GOP members view Cruz as a radical extremist Republican in the wake of a victory that would have seemed stunning back in March when the primary election would have been held if not for delays prompted by the courthouse sword-rattling on redistricting.

But as tea party crusaders and their more traditional conservative allies celebrate Cruz's amazing come-from-behind victory in a primary fight that his chief foe led by a dozen points in the first vote, the runoff results demonstrated that the Texas GOP is still a two-party political universe. It's true that conservatives won a majority of the races where the ideological line in the sand had been clear. Conservatives - for example - knocked off two of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus' top lieutenants. But Republicans who'd been targeted by the tea party like Ken King, Bennett Ratliff, Jason Villalba and Kyle Kacal prevailed in Texas House runoffs in a sign that Republicans here aren't marching in monolithic lockstep to the right.

And then there's the Democrats, who's most substantial cause for celebration as a group in the Texas runoff election was arguably Cruz's victory in the GOP race for U.S. Senate. Sadler and the Democrats may have one chance in a thousand of beating Ted Cruz in November. But that's better than no chance at all - which is what their odds would have been if Dewhurst had emerged as the Republican nominee.

The election last week was arguably one of the hardest to call in the state's often unpredictable political history - and it produced more surprises than any primary vote in memory. The biennial Capitol Inside Best of the Texas Primary Runoff Election explains how a select few of the candidates managed to survive one of the trickiest tests they've ever faced or ever will.


Drew Springer
Best Legislative Open Seat
Overall Campaign

Drew Springer was playing varsity tennis at the University of North Texas several years before a backup quarterback named Frank Reich steered the Buffalo Bills to an astonishing victory in a 1993 playoff game that the Houston Oilers had led by more than 30 points in the second half. Springer had reached his mid-thirties by the time David "Big Papi" Ortiz hit a walkoff home run in extra innings that brought the Boston Red Sox back to life when they'd been on the brink of elimination in the only major league baseball series that a team that had been down 0-3 has ever won.

Those are widely considered to be the two biggest comebacks in modern sports history at the national level. But the victory that Springer pulled off this week in a state House runoff election when he appeared to be toast has to rank among the most amazing come-from-behind wins ever in the contact sport of Texas politics.

Blood sport might be the more fitting term to describe the Republican overtime fight in House District 68 that Throckmorton rancher Trent McKnight entered as a heavy favorite after coming within a hair of winning outright in the May 29 primary election with 49 percent of the initial vote. Springer - a financial planner in a family business in a small town near Gainesville - advanced to the runoff with less than 35 percent of the spring vote in a race he appeared destined to lose to a rival who'd been a superior candidate in most every way.

McKnight galloped into the second round with a long list of advantages including a war chest with three times more cash than his rival would muster thanks in large part to family loans of nearly $350,000 by the time the runoff ended. McKnight had the support of all the major agriculture groups - and that alone would seem to be enough to ensure success in a House race in a northwest Texas district that's predominantly rural. McKnight had the state's most powerful professional organizations - the Texas Medical Association and Texas Association of Realtors - in his corner along with educators, architects, apartment owners, oil and gas, rural cooperatives and racetrack owners who hope to build casinos where the ponies run now.

When Springer trotted out endorsements from conservatives like Republican State Reps. Phil King of Weatherford and Charles Perry of Lubbock, McKnight appeared to trump that big time with vigorous shows of support from GOP celebrities like Governor Rick Perry and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. McKnight, who outgoing State Rep. Rick Hardcastle was backing as well, had the most successful political consultant in Texas history as a top advisor while Springer had a strategist with minimal experience compared to the first-round leader's guide. Springer did have the Austin-based groups that are led by Michael Quinn Sullivan and mainstays on the right like the Young Conservatives of Texas and the Texas Right to Life doing what they could to help a campaign that had lost cause written all over it. And in the wildly extraordinary primary season of 2012 - which went on almost four months longer than normal as a repercussion of an ongoing federal court battle on redistricting - MQS and YCT were synonyms for tea party. And that gave Springer some cause for hope - as thin as it may have seemed out the outset of the runoff to the outside world.

But Springer still faced a climb that looked steeper than the Rockies on the political incline scale - and the flimsy rope he had to work appeared to snap with revelations two weeks before the runoff election that he'd been arrested on a shoplifting charge at a Target store in Denton when he was still a college student in the late 1980s. Springer was sentenced to six months deferred adjudication for attempting to smuggle a $29.99 Nintendo game out of the store in his pants. He was placed on six months probation in a case that appeared to be a belated death sentence for a campaign that it came back to haunt 22 years later complete with police station mug shots that spread across the Internet like a nasty rash.

But Springer consultant Jordan Berry had a plan to which he planned to stick despite the potentially fatal distraction at the worst possible time - and with less than two weeks to go before the runoff vote - torpedoes suddenly started raining down on a McKnight campaign. The wrath of hell came in the form of a series of direct mail bombings that portrayed McKnight as a liberal Democrat who'd been masquerading as a Republican and hoping the voters would be dumb enough to buy the act. The Springer mailers accused McKnight of funneling money to liberal Democrats who'd been pro-abortion and leaders in Congress in the fight for Obamacare and voted against tax breaks for seniors and middle-class families. One mail piece claimed that McKnight backed gay marriage and pictured him with a big smile beside a pair of male dolls who were arm-in-arm and donning tuxedos with pink vests and ascot ties on their apparent wedding day. The McKnight photo was sandwiched between President Obama on top and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with an angry scowl on her face below.

A second Springer mailer left the impression that he just might be the most conservative candidate who'd ever run for office. McKnight, who's hair had grayed considerably since he posed for the cops at DPD, was pictured in the flyer in front of a giant heart-shaped stone tablet with the Ten Commandments printed on it. Springer touted his pro-life and traditional marriage views and his opposition to Obamacare on the mailer along with vows to fight for a balanced state budget with no new taxes and a prohibition against "ALL handouts" to illegal immigrants who find their way to Texas. The flip side of the mailer showed Springer decked in a camouflage shirt and pointing a rifle into the sky with a list of marquee conservative endorsements on the page down below.

McKnight's supporters condemned the Springer team tactics to be the most deplorable, dishonest and disgusting that they'd ever witnessed on the political battlefield. But when something hits a nerve like that, it usually means it worked. And Springer's camp was swatting sticks and stones away with champagne bottles - or tea cups perhaps in this particular case - after the distant runner-up in round one soared to a victory in overtime with 56 percent of the runoff vote.

Springer's campaign focused an aggressive turnout effort on his home base of Cooke County, which has the largest population in the 22-county House district with Gainesville as its biggest city. Cooke had been the only county Springer carried in May - and his campaign turned more voters out for the runoff there than the number who'd cast ballots in the first round. Springer, who won four counties this week, claimed 83 percent of the runoff vote in Cooke County after pulling less than 58 percent in May. So Springer not only persuaded his original voters to vote in the runoff, he got some of them to bring a friend or two along to share in the fun.

Honorable Mention Legislative Open Seat Rural: Kyle Kacal (HD 12 Republican)


Bennett Ratliff
Best Legislative Open Seat Urban Campaign

One of the most challenging tests in politics comes when a candidate's greatest asset also happens to be his or her number one liability. Take the case of Bennett Ratliff as a prime example - a son who'd be forced to run in the name of the father if he ever aspired to be a state legislator. Like it or not.

As far as the world inside the Austin beltway would be concerned, Ratliff could expect to be either loved or hated from the moment his name emerged as a possible candidate for an open Texas House race in the suburbs of northwest Dallas County. The very mention of the name Ratliff in state political circles invoked a deluge emotions and good and bad memories that centered on the fact that the House District 115 candidate's dad happened to be Bill Ratliff. The elder Ratliff had been without question the GOP's most influential state Senate member during a 15-year stint that began when Democrats ran the show in the Capitol's east wing and ended when Republicans were firmly in control there. But to achieve a level of power that was unprecedented for a Republican when Ratliff the father began climbing the ladder, he had to forget about partisan loyalty to the point where he appeared to have none both before and after the GOP takeover in 1996.

Republican die-hards had found Bill Ratliff's bipartisan ways begrudgingly acceptable when he gave the GOP the chairs on the finance and education committees when the Senate majority and presiding officer were still both Democratic. But the conservatives who dominated the GOP grassroots base were highly offended and angered when Ratliff the father continued to treat Democrats like equals after they put him position to win a special lieutenant governor's election in 2001 after the ascension of George W. Bush and Rick Perry to the offices of president and governor respectively. The GOP faithful thought it was bad enough when Ratliff the senator was quoted as saying to the effect of being only 51 percent Republican. That made sense in the sense that it pretty much reflected the partisan ratio in the East Texas district he represented before all the yellow dog Democrats there turned Republican. But that kind of thinking was old school and archaic for many Texas Republicans who were eager to dispense more than a century's worth of partisan payback when the GOP finally replaced the Democrats as the state's ruling party. During his last term as a legislator - two years after the brief run in the dais as the temporary Senate president - Ratliff delivered the ultimate insult to GOP loyalists when he gave Democrats the one Republican they needed to block debate on a controversial midstream congressional redistricting plan in 2003.

So when the former lawmaker's oldest son entered the race to replace retiring Republican State Rep. Jim Jackson in a district that stretched across parts of Irving, Coppell, Carrollton and Farmers Branch, he would be required to perform a highly delicate balancing act to have any hopes of winning. The predicament was complicated even more by the fact that Bennett Ratliff's younger brother, Thomas Ratliff, had already piqued the wrath of the father's detractors when he ousted a social conservative from the State Board of Education two years ago. And Tom would be on the ballot for re-election when Ben was several slots down as a state House hopeful.

With no middle ground on the Ratliff clan in Austin, the family member in the HD 115 race faced a very difficult task of persuading voters who'd never heard of his father why they should vote for him while convincing those who did know about Bill that Bennett would be his own man as a representative.

The GOP competition in HD 115 would be intense - arguably moreso than it turned out to be in any primary on either side of the aisle on the House battlefield. Matt Rinaldi entered the race with the full faith and support of conservatives - and there were more of them than ever with tea party fever at a boiling point. But the biggest hurdle would turn out to be Steve Nguyen - an Irving Republican who had a massive war chest from the outset thanks to an outpouring of support from fellow optometrists across the state.

Nguyen's odds appeared to soar when he finished conservatives flocked to him after he and Ratliff advanced to the runoff with 35 percent and 30 percent of the vote respectively in the May election when Rinaldi was eliminated with a third-place showing. But Ratliff, who'd had considerable help in the early going from some of House Speaker Joe Straus' top lieutenants, had plenty of reasons to think a come-from-behind victory could be accomplished including support from groups like the Texas Medical Association and Texans for Lawsuit Reform and educators who still viewed his father in a sacred light.

Ratliff also had the benefit of GOP consultant Bryan Eppstein's team as the strategy guide - and even though Eppstein and company suffered some setbacks in the primary election and runoff - they're usually at their best in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that happens to be the home base. And they came up with a potent weapon for Ratliff in the runoff when he pounded the first-round leader relentlessly amid allegations that Nguyen had lobbied for Obamacare and served on the board of a national eye specialists group that gave money to Democrats who'd pushed the president's health care reform plan through Congress.

While Nguyen called the accusations untrue and even came up with evidence to refute them, the introduction of Obama in the GOP runoff gave Ratliff a way to distract attention from charges that he'd raised taxes multiple times as a Coppell school board member over the course of the past nine years.

There's no way to know how much the Republican runoff in HD 115 was a referendum on the Ratliffs as a political family and its legendary patriarch. But that's a moot point now in the wake of Bennett Ratliff's victory over Nguyen in last week's runoff election with almost 52 percent of the vote.

Honorable Mention Legislative Open Seat Urban: Philip Cortez (HD 117 Democrat), Stephanie Klick (HD 91 Republican), Jeff Leach (HD 67 Republican), Jason Villalba (HD 114 Republican)


Ken King
Best Legislative Challenger Campaign

The Republican runoff in House District 88 was a modern day range war that put the north against the south in a geographical concoction that stretches 300 miles from the western edge of the South Plains to the northwest corner of the Panhandle. So maybe it's fitting that the candidate who won it turned out to be the one who looked most like a cowboy in the campaign literature and television ads. And while the names of the key places had no bearing on the outcome of the runoff or any aspect of it, there's some poetic intrigue perhaps in the fact that winning candidate from the north resides in a town called Canadian while the incumbent who lost lives in a place called Hale.

That's Hale County to be specific - the largest of 17 counties in HD 88 and the only one that State Rep. Jim Landtroop of Plainview has represented during a one-term stint that will end when Ken King takes the oath of office in January.

But while King the rancher who rode his horse a lot in TV spots beat Landtroop the insurance agent with 54 percent of the vote in last week's runoff election - the GOP showdown in HD 88 was more of a high-level chess match that revolved on a variety of factors than a simple shootout at some O.K. Coral. The HD 88 fight was the hottest House race in the state by most any measuring standard - and while Landtroop was one of three incumbent House Republicans who lost in round two compared to only one who survived it - it's significant to note that he was the only one in that group who'd been on the wrong side in the speaker's election early last year.

Landtroop - one of 15 conservative Republicans who voted against Speaker Joe Straus in his bid for a second term as House leader in 2011 - emerged from his first session with a redesigned district that was all foreign territory to him with the exception of his home base of Hale County. But Landtroop got a major break when State Rep. Warren Chisum - a veteran GOP lawmaker who represents the district into which the rookie had been shuffled - decided to run for the Texas Railroad Commission instead of seeking re-election in an area where he would've won easily despite the new map pairing.

Landtroop's conservative credentials and tea party support didn't scare off the competition, however, as a former legislator from the south part of the redrawn district and a businessman from a wealthy family in the same city where Chisum lives joined King on the list of challengers in a race that had fireworks potential written all over it from day one. The early speculation had King as a possible last place finisher in the initial election - even though that notion evaporated quickly when the money started rolling in.

Thanks largely to an infusion of loans from family members and one very generous supporter, King had the most money for the first round that ended when he claimed 30 percent of the vote with a second place finish in the May election that Landtroop led with 34 percent. King would end up raising more than $830,000 before the final week of the runoff - more than double the amount that Landtroop had rounded up for his first re-election bid. But both of the surviving candidates knew that the way they would spent their money would be more important than the actual quantity count - and both had top-flight consultants out of Austin who could show them how to get bang for their bucks while maximizing intangibles with values that can't be appraised on the monetary scale.

Landtroop had strong support from the same anti-Straus conservatives who knocked off several speaker allies this year - and he jumped on the opportunity to paint King as a moderate by accusing him of backing tax and spending hikes as a small town school board member. Landtroop's camp tried to drive that nail into the coffin it envisioned by posting a video on YouTube that showed an excerpt from a King quote at a campaign forum in which he appeared to be acknowledging his vulnerability to attacks on tax votes. King contended that the clip had been edited selectively in a way designed to take his remarks out of context - and he countered the charges effectively by portraying Landtroop as a useless piece of legislative furniture with a do-nothing record in his first House session.

Landtroop responded by touting an anti-abortion amendment he'd persuaded the House to add to a Medicaid bill - and he credited the move with forcing a dozen Planned Parenthood clinics out of business. What Landtroop didn't realize was that the family planning organization that he'd hoped to torpedo would initiate a networking effort behind the scenes with the specific goal of payback.

Landtroop - like other conservative GOP lawmakers in competitive primary battles - had a parade of statewide officials including Governor Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Comptroller Susan Combs filing through the district with endorsements for him. But King trumped Landtroop's support from Austin-based statewide leaders with endorsements that were arguably more valuable from the two Republicans who failed to make the runoff and Chisum himself in the runoff's waning days. Chisum, who was on the runoff ballot in the RRC race, went ballistic on Landtroop, branding him as a liar who'd distorted King's record as a school trustee with a campaign that he found utterly disgusting.

While the firestorm of insults and allegations commanded the headlines, both campaigns knew that the one who did the better job of identifying supporters and turning them out in the dog heat of summer would probably win. One of the candidates who'd been eliminated in May was from the northern half of the district while the other lives in its far southern reaches. But both of them had endorsed King - and that made the geographical playing field in a classic regional confrontation a little more uneven for the incumbent in a district that was new turf for him already. While both candidates had top-rate strategists, the firm that's led by Craig Murphy and Chris Turner prevailed in this particular fight as King's consultant.

Landtroop as expected carried Hale County. But King took a major step in the right direction when he received more than twice as many votes in Hale County as he had in May while the incumbent's support there was almost the same. King appeared to seal the victory, however, with his performance in the runoff in Castro, Briscoe and Swisher counties - the three counties that are squeezed smack dab in the middle as the defining line between the north and the south in HD 88. Landtroop had won all three middle-ground counties in the first primary election before King captured Briscoe and Castro in the runoff and came within two votes of winning Swisher as well.

With no Democrat in the running, King is the new king of the mountain in the northernmost reaches of the Lone Star State.

Honorable Mention Legislative Challenger: Donna Campbell (SD 25 Republican), J.D. Sheffield (HD 59 Republican), Travis Clardy (HD 11 Republican)


J.M. Lozano
Best Legislative Incumbent

South Texas State Rep. J.M. Lozano is the winner in this category by default - the only incumbent to emerge victoriously from a Republican primary runoff with a victory and hopes for another term still on track. But the fact that Lozano has no competition for this particular honor makes his win over Bill T. Wilson of Portland in overtime all the more impressive and telling about the quality of the campaign he ran in round two in his first re-election bid and debut as a Republican candidate.

Lozano had encountered predictable resistance and suspicion during the first round from Republicans who saw him as the ultimate opportunist in light of his decision to switch parties in March before the ink had dried on a federal court map that gave House District 43 a slight GOP tilt for the first time. Some loyal Republicans didn't like the idea that Lozano had actually spent more time running for a second term as a Democrat than he had as a newly-converted GOP member. Despite a big cash advantage and support from marquee party leaders that had rolled out the red carpet, Lozano led Wilson by less than one percentage point in the May 29 primary election when they advanced to overtime as Willie Vaden was eliminated with a distant third place showing.

The alterations that HD 43 had undergone on a map that the Legislature had approved last year had prompted Lozano to move from Kingsville to Alice where one of the WingStop franchises he owns is located. But a federal three-judge panel in San Antonio shuffled San Patricio County where Wilson and Vaden are based into HD 43 on an interim map that compelled Lozano to change his party affiliation right before an extended filing deadline. San Patricio became the largest county in Lozano's district as well as the most Republican - and the two challengers claimed almost 56 percent of the first round vote while the incumbent finished with just over 44 percent and a fragile lead that would be tough to hold in the runoff.

Despite his new friends in high stations in Austin and the money they could bring to the table, Lozano had plenty of cause for concern in a four-county district where his old home base of Kleberg County was the only area he'd represented in his brief career as a legislator. San Patrico voters had cast half the votes that were recorded in the GOP primary in HD 43 in May - and Wilson had almost two more months to pitch his campaign as a first-time candidate in a race against an incumbent who'd been labeled as a moderate by tea party conservatives who don't trust party-switchers.

One of Lozano's first moves as a Republican had been to hire consultant Steve Ray, who's emerged in recent years as the top GOP strategist in South Texas. Ray, a former reporter for the Corpus Christi newspaper and the chain that owns it, knew that Lozano probably wouldn't survive if he depended exclusively on establishment Republicans and independents for support in his maiden voyage with his new party. So Lozano's camp reached out to Democrats - and despite the inevitable harsh criticism that would come from hard-core Democratic loyalists - the incumbent persuaded a significant number to cross party lines to support him in the first election this spring and the runoff this summer if they hadn't voted in the Democratic primary in May.

Lozano pinned the recruiting push on the assertion that the GOP was more in sync with conservative Hispanics who'd been accustomed to voting for Democrats simply because their parents and grandparents had. Lozano's redesigned district surrounded the Corpus Christi area, which had evolved from a traditional Democratic stronghold into an area where Republicans had leveled the playing field in the past few years. Two-thirds of the residents in the new version of HD 43 are Latino - and while a majority of Hispanics were still Democrats - Lozano's team made crossover support one of its highest priorities and contends now that the effort was highly successful.

But Lozano got a couple of crucial breaks that helped propel him to victory in a runoff election that three GOP House colleagues and one incumbent Republican state senator all ended up losing. Conservatives who've fiercely opposed Speaker Joe Straus didn't come after Lozano as hard as they did in other races involving some of the House leader's other allies in competitive Republican primaries. The tea party apparently didn't see a moderate Latino in a Hispanic district in a race against an Anglo rival as vulnerable as some of the other incumbents that conservatives targeted and beat. Lozano hit the jackpot when his team discovered that Wilson was getting a substantial amount of money through a political action committee that trial lawyers were funding. The incumbent's team seized on the trial lawyers' emergence in round two and made it appear radioactive - despite the fact that the same plaintiffs attorneys had support Lozano when he'd run as a Democrat in 2010.

Lozano had picked up endorsements from several GOP statewide officers including Governor Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott, who's been highly popular with conservatives. Perry touted the trial lawyer ties to the incumbent's opponent when he appeared at a Lozano rally shortly before the runoff vote in a move that drew Wilson's wrath and helped seal his defeat. Lozano's team also sought to exploit a promise that Wilson had ostensibly made to teachers about supporting moves to raise taxes on their behalf - and that compelled Vaden to rally behind the incumbent in round two.

While incumbents who'd finished in first in May were dropping like tenpins in other parts of the state, Lozano substantially better in the runoff than he had in round one when he staved off the challenge with more than 54 percent of the vote. The celebration won't last long, however, with former Texas House member Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles of Alice waiting in the wings as the Democratic nominee in a district where she'll have a decent shot at reclaiming a seat she lost in the GOP tsunami two years ago.

Honorable Mention Legislative Incumbent: None


Filemon Vela
Best Congressional Campaign

The bridges go up in flames behind most people in politics who have the audacity to switch parties - especially in a place like the Rio Grande Valley that's the only remaining Democratic stronghold in Texas outside of El Paso and minority neighborhoods in the state's largest cities. But most people aren't Filemon "Blue Eyes" Vela - a Brownsville attorney who's a maestro without rival when it comes to playing both sides of the political fence.

In a race that was barely a blip on Austin radar screens, Vela put on a clinic on how to put a viable campaign together in no time and how to make sure that you win and win big once you do. Vela had the bloodlines and name identification as the product of a South Texas family with a father who served as a federal judge and a mother who used to be the mayor of Brownsville. And Vela had patience as someone who would wait until he had a pretty good idea of what the playing field would look like in a race for a new congressional seat that other aspiring politicians in his neck of the woods had entered months before they knew where the boundaries would be.

While money wouldn't be a problem for a highly-successful trial lawyer with a big bank account and lots of rich friends, Vela had one little potential glitch he'd have to work out when he was on the verge of entering the race for the U.S. House in an area that a federal court would designate as Congressional District 34. Vela had been voting in GOP primaries ever since his wife became a Republican six years ago en route to winning a seat on the 13th Court of Appeals that's based in Corpus Christi where Democrats had been jumping ship in droves. But Vela hadn't ever really become a loyal Republican - and he'd soured some on the GOP when Governor Rick Perry passed on an opportunity to appoint Judge Rose Vela to a state Supreme Court seat that she'd been planning to seek before it became open. Vela nonetheless knew he could expect to die-hard Democrats to splatter him with opportunist accusations if and when he jumped in the fight for Congress in a district that would be all but impossible to win as a the GOP nominee.

But Vela was willing to gamble that he could persuade Democrats that he was still one of them even though he'd been sleeping with the enemy for a while. So Vela quietly assembled a core base of support while potential primary rivals were running into each other on maps that kept changing - and he had Democratic mega-donor Mikal Watts and other powerhouse names from the trial lawyer ranks and business establishment in his corner ready to roll by the time he launched his campaign in CD 34. When Vela encountered the immediate and inevitable questions about his party hopping, he served up a simple answer. He loves his wife and puts family above politics - so what might have looked like partisan betrayal on the surface was simply a case of a man standing by his woman. A Tammy Wynette with genders reversed. But Vela didn't have time to waste on the subject of his past because he was too busy taking shots at the GOP and explaining to voters that votes that Republicans in Congress had been taking on issues they understood like taxes and welfare had exposed a vein of right-wing extremism that hadn't been so apparent when during the time that he'd strayed.

Three months after signing up for the race, Vela captured more than 40 percent of the vote in the May primary election while seven other Democrats split the rest. Denise Saenz Blanchard - a former chief of staff to Solomon Ortiz before his U.S. House stint ended - qualified for a spot in the CD 34 runoff with less than 13 percent of the spring vote. She was good candidate who has what it takes to win if she picks the right fights. But the spring vote count in CD 34 was as close as the race would get.

Saenz Blanchard had raised $176,000 heading into the final week of the runoff campaign - about one thousand bucks more than Vela had loaned his campaign on top almost $240,000 that supporters had donated. The HD 34 contest wasn't really a race by the time it ended this week when Vela was showered with two out of every three voters that were cast in overtime.

Vela has one more hurdle to clear this fall with must overcome opposition this fall with Brownsvile tea party activist Jessica Puente Blanchard as the GOP nominee in the wake of a victory that she posted with 55 percent of the runoff vote. But that should be a cakewalk for a guy with a Frank Sinatra nickname and all the reasons in the world to think he's going to win in a district where Democrats won 57 percent of the vote in the last two statewide elections and fared even better down-ballot.

Several state lawmakers could make compelling cases for consideration in the highly subjective competition of campaign performance ratings in the congressional category. Republican State Rep. Randy Weber of Pearland led from start to finish in a redesigned U.S House district where he won the runoff with 63 percent of the vote in a battle with a hometown city council member who'd been part of the GOP's grassroots women army. State Reps. Pete Gallego of Alpine and Marc Veasey of Fort Worth scored solid victories over former lawmakers in open Democratic congressional primaries that garnered more attention outside the areas they unfolded than any other second-round fights for the U.S. House in Texas.

Gallego had to overcome a five-point spring deficit in a fight with San Antonio's Ciro Rodriguez, a former state legislator who'd been in and out of Congress throughout most of the past two decades. Gallego claimed 55 percent of the runoff vote to set the stage for a November showdown with freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco in a district where Democrats think they can win. Veasey - an African-American who's a product of the machine Martin Frost assembled as a powerhouse congressman - will be heavily favored this fall in a race for a new U.S. House seat in the Dallas-Fort Worth area after surviving a vicious brawl with ex-Texas House member Domingo Garcia with a win in round two with 53 percent.

But the runoff foes that Veasey and Gallego defeated were both seriously damaged long before the battles they entered in 2012. Garcia had alienated too many fellow Democrats with an aggressive style and combative tactics - and Democratic leaders and voters had simply lost confidence in Rodriguez as someone who'd won two separate congressional seats and lost both of them while failing to distinguish himself on any particular issue.

So Vela the blue-eyed blue dog Democrat who'd been cozy with Republicans before he turned against them suddenly a few months ago is the winner here.

Honorable Mention Congressional Campaign: Pete Gallego (CD 23 Democrat), Randy Weber (CD 14 Republican) Marc Veasey (CD 33 Democrat)


Ted Cruz
Best Statewide Campaign

It's tough to say exactly how much actual credit Ted Cruz deserves for his earth-rattling runoff victory in the U.S. Senate race compared to the role that incredible good luck and other factors that his team couldn't control or affect.

The former solicitor general's greatest admirers would be disingenuous or delusional if they attempt to dismiss or play down the significance and impact that timing had on the final outcome in the battle between Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and Cruz for the GOP nomination in the top race on the runoff ballot. The overriding consensus since it became apparent that Cruz had a good chance to win has been that Dewhurst would have waltzed to a relatively easy victory in round one under normal circumstances in a typical election year when the primary season is four months shorter than it turned out to be in 2012. A prolonged federal court fight that Democrats initiated effectively bought Cruz the extra time that he needed to introduce himself to the electorate, to demonstrate his potential and to generate a sufficient amount of funding to be competitive in a race against an opponent whose personal fortune seems infinite at times.

While we'll never know, Cruz might have destined for a third-place finish behind former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert in the first primary election if it had been held on schedule in early March instead of being shoved to the last week in May by the redistricting chess match. Former football star and television analyst Craig James might have given Cruz some competition for third in the absence of the map battle that strung the process in mid-summer. The Democrats who took GOP leaders and legislators to court on redistricting were trying to cut their losses in the Legislature - and they were modestly successful in that regard. But the decision by Attorney General Greg Abbott - ostensibly with the blessings of House Speaker Joe Straus and Dewhurst, the Texas Senate's presiding officer - to challenge the first set of alternative court maps for the Legislature and congressional delegations all but guaranteed that the primary election and runoff would be delayed. And the primary voting was pushed back again when the Republican state attorney general prevailed at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Abbott had been a mentor and role model as the statewide official who gave Cruz the job that became the centerpiece of his campaign resume. Cruz spent a year running for attorney general when it appeared that Abbott might be moving up the chain in a domino effect from an early Hutchison retirement that never materialized. Cruz dropped the plan the moment it became obvious that Abbott wouldn't be leaving the AG's office as soon as some had expected. Cruz dropped Abbott's name repeatedly as a candidate - and even though the attorney general had the good sense to stay out of the U.S. Senate fray - the link to Cruz has spawned conspiracy theories on whether Abbott had been trying to sandbag the primary with the redistricting maneuvering in an attempt to help his protege and possibly himself. Abbott - as it turned out - was the only high-ranking elected state leader who emerged without any blemishes from a U.S. Senate that most of the GOP's other statewide officials jumped into on Dewhurst's behalf.

The truth is that Abbott didn't think Cruz had a chance against Dewhurst in the early stages of the federal contest when he was in the process of making the decision to steer forced the redistricting battle to the nation's highest court and defending the maps that lawmakers had drawn there late last year. But conspiracies are a lot sexier than coincidence in the political speculation genre especially when events defy convention like the Cruz win.

While timing was absolutely critical in terms of the campaign's duration and Cruz's emergence at the perfect time, he probably couldn't have won the race without the luxury of a powerful national movement to which he could hitch his star when it was reaching a new peak. Republicans had won primaries in races for the U.S. Senate and Congress in other states this year with substantial support from an energized conservative base with a jazzy new name. But Cruz became the tea party's top national poster guy because the anti-establishment voters and established leaders who'd gotten out in front of the parade saw more star quality and marketability in the U.S. Senate contender here. Cruz wouldn't have been able to swim anywhere near as far as the wave carried him. Cruz - ironically perhaps - was the darling of the same rank-and-file forces that had never been that crazy about the idea of electing Hispanics to high stations in Texas. While Cruz is an American native of Cuban descent, he has no obviously identifiable Latino characteristics beyond a Spanish surname that a lot of Anglos don't recognize immediately as Hispanic. Ted Cruz could've been Tom Cruise's cousin as far as some voters could tell.

There's no denying that the stars has to align perfectly before Cruz could beat a primary opponent who was loaded with money, tireless, extremely intelligent, incomparably dedicated to public suffer and steeped in a wealth of experience as a former land commissioner who's run the state Senate with impressive results as the lieutenant governor for almost 10 years. Dewhurst seemed to be about as qualified as it gets for a U.S. Senate race. Dewhurst, however, has a unique personality that comes across as awkward - and the more he tries to behave like a regular like he did often in televised debates and public appearances - it looks contrived to a lot of average voters on the surface. Dewhurst was often his own worst enemy - and Cruz helped him along on that whenever he saw the opportunity.

Whatever part extraneous circumstances and luck might have played Cruz vs. Dewhurst, it would remiss for the post-mortem appraisers to refuse to acknowledge the fact that the guy who won the runoff made all the right moves and very few mistakes en route to the finish line that he crossed in a blaze of blinding speed. Cruz made the most of the two-month window of opportunity he had to close a 12-point deficit - and victory appeared to be inevitable by the time he nailed down the nomination with almost 57 pecent of the vote as a thundering exclamation mark.

Cruz couldn't have won the U.S. Senate runoff on tea party love alone. He had to position himself perfectly to capitalize on one-of-a-kind original political climate - and he had to pull off the sales job of the century to overcome the myriad of disadvantages he faced in what seemed mission impossible when it began. Cruz oozed a white-hot passion on the stump - and he served it up with a measured intemperance when performing in the cooler medium of TV during a record number of debates that he'd win every time as an experienced trial lawyer who had to be brimming with confidence when he came from the womb.

Cruz assembled a first-flight team of advisors that included Jason Johnson, an Austin consultant who's been Abbott's top outside strategist since his emergence as a statewide political superstar. And when the going got really tough - like it did with relentless attacks that centered on past legal clients including a Chinese tire distributor who'd been accused of pirating American ingenuity and a private prison developer who a grieving mother blamed for her son's suicide in a pro-Dewhurst super PAC ad in the campaign final days - Cruz remained undaunted, unbowed and unapologetic.

Cruz spent minimal time deflecting the attacks on his legal business - refusing to be backed into the trap of a defensive posture while concentrating on offense with what appeared to be a singular central objective. With the establishment overwhelmingly behind Dewhurst, Cruz found ways to turn his opponent's base of support and extensive experience into major liabilities as he portrayed the lieutenant governor as a tax-and-spend moderate who epitomized the status quo that tea party crusaders despise.

Cruz didn't win because he happen to come along with tea party fever was reaching a boiling point. He won because he figured out how to tap into it and channel it in customized fashion for a campaign like none that had ever been run before in Texas with any degree of success. While Cruz will be heavily favored against Democratic nominee Paul Sadler in the general election, Democrats are thanking their stars that he's the nominee instead of the party establishment's choice. Democrats are hoping that independents and moderate Republicans will conclude that Cruz is a dangerous extremist if they haven't already - and if President Obama finds a way to do as well in Texas as he did four years ago ... well, you get the picture.

Honorable Mention Statewide Campaign: Christi Craddick (Texas Railroad Commission Republican)


Empower Texans
Best Organizational Effort

Ten years years have gone by since Texas Senate member Bill Ratliff likened conservatives who'd targeted him and other moderate Republicans to Nazis, skinheads, the KKK, Al Queda and the Taliban. But that might be sugarcoating compared to how Republicans who've come under attack from the right in today's Texas feel about Michael Quinn Sullivan, who's emerged in recent years as the most aggressive and confrontational conservative activist in a state that's become tantamount to tea party heaven. The GOP candidates on Sullivan's hit list might be more inclined to refer to him simply as the devil.

Sullivan - the president of the Empower Texans PAC and the sister group Texans for Fiscal Responsibility - has found that the level of wrath that he draws goes up in direct correlation with the amount of success that he and conservative allies achieve in high-priority races on the critical legislative battleground. Sullivan - as a consequence - can assume that he's more unpopular now in the eyes of his enemies than ever thanks to a banner primary season that he capped off with an exclamation point in the runoff election last week.

Regarded not long ago by some Republicans as a noisy and obnoxious wing-nut with more bark than bite, Sullivan cemented his reputation as the state's most prominent RINO hunter when the groups that he leads posted a half dozen wins against three losses in GOP runoff races in which they intervened.

Empower Texans rallied behind Republican House hopefuls Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, Jeff Leach of Plano, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Springer of Muenster and Greg Bonnen of Friendwsood in runoffs battles that they ended up winning at the polls last week. Sullivan's forces sided with conservatives in more than three dozen legislative contests in the first and second rounds - and they won about three times as many races as they lost in the initial election and the runoff. Empower Texans suffered key setbacks when Republican State Reps. Jim Landtroop of Plainview and Sid Miller of Stephenvile were unseated by GOP challengers and Tucker Anderson of Calvert fell short in a race for a new House seat against a rival who'd finished second in May.

But Miller's defeat may have seem more bittersweet than sour from Sullivan's point of view when considering that the incumbent was one of the few if not the only member of House Speaker Joe Straus' leadership team that had the conservative activist's official support in the runoff. Sullivan has been the speaker's chief nemesis since he led an unsuccessful move to oust Straus from the leadership position at the start of the regular session last year. While Miller had backed Straus and defended him vigorously in the face of attacks by conservative groups and leaders from outside the chamber, Empower Texans offered to endorse the incumbent as a result of an undeniably conservative voting record in the House for more than a decade. Gatesville physician J.D. Sheffield, who beat Miller in the runoff, made that decision easier when he accepted campaign cash in overtime from groups that often back Democrats like the pro-education Texas Parent PAC.

Sullivan's groups don't attempt to help candidates they favor by flooding their campaigns with money. Empower Texans PAC foot the bill for candidate advertising and voter contact in the form of automated robo calls, campaign buttons and a series of town hall conference calls in which voters participated. Sullivan's groups provide a wealth of information on their web sites and emails about the candidates it supports and opposes. But the most valuable element that Sullivan brings to the table arguably is the brand name certification that candidates are truly conservative in a state where every Republican swears that they are or runs the risk of perishing.

Sullivan didn't be daunted or slowed in the runoff by complaints that two of Straus' top lieutenants filed at the Texas Ethics Commission against before he helped beat one of them at the ballot box in the May primary election. He's like a political energizer bunny on steroids when it comes to the causes he holds dear.

Honorable Mention Organizational Effort: Texas Parent PAC, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, Texas Medical Association



Ted Cruz
Best Statewide Campaign

Filemon Vela
Best Congress Campaign

Drew Springer
Best Open Race Overall

Bennett Ratliff
Best Open Race Urban

Ken King
Best Challenger Campaign

J.M. Lozano
Best Incumbent Campaign

Michael Q. Sullivan
Best Organizational Effort


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