June 2, 2014
Best Open Legislative Race
Best Challenger Campaign
Best Organizational Effort
Sid Miller & Ryan Sitton
Best Statewide Campaign
You could make the same basic case for State Senators Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton in the best statewide runoff campaign category as a pair of Republicans who'll most likely be the next lieutenant governor and attorney general in Texas respectively. Both claimed blowout victories in overtime bouts with A-list primary foes who'd had more money and support from business interests that had always seemed to be on the winning side in GOP primaries until the past couple of years. Both assembled talented teams that helped them amass substantial war chests that they'd need to be sufficiently competitive - and they executed smart offensive gameplans and played defense well enough to survive two of the nastiest political bloodbaths that Texans have ever witnessed.
But you could also make the counter-case that Patrick and Paxton both received nearly two-thirds of the votes that were cast in their particular races in spite of themselves and the baggage they brought into the ring without any apparent anticipation on how potentially fatal it could have been in another time or different place. Once they were caked in mud, however, the suburban Senate duo both had figured out that there was nothing that they'd ever done in the past that could prevent them from winning in a runoff that would be dominated by tea party conservatives who demonstrated an unprecedented capacity for compassion and forgiveness when it came to the candidates who were running farthest right. Patrick and Paxton made the right moves in most cases and kept the errors in the present tense to a minimum. Paxton essentially ignored attacks based on professional behavior as an attorney while Patrick confronted criticism on skeletons from his own past with a diversionary shoot-the-messenger approach that apparently worked based on the giant margin of victory in a runoff that ended a very distinguished political career for Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. But Patrick and Paxton in the final analysis scored lopsided runoff wins in races that unfolded along very similar scripts because they were on the right side of the political climate and could afford to publicize it more than adequately even though they were being outspent. The GOP's new nominees for state Senate president and AG simply couldn't lose as the consensus choice on every conservative slate that high-profile leaders touted in mailers that grassroots voters adhere to religiously in the tea party era.
The only Republican who won statewide in round two without the lion's share of conservative endorsements happened to be Ryan Sitton - a Friendswood engineering firm founder who'll be carrying the GOP banner this fall as the prohibitive favorite in the Texas railroad commissioner's race. That fact alone arguably makes Sitton more worthy than either Patrick or Paxton of top honors in the category of best statewide runoff campaign in Capitol Inside's Best of the Texas Primary Elections in overtime competition. Paxton was the only one of the four GOP statewide overtime victors who beat a rival who wasn't damaged goods like the candidates who lost runoffs after attempting to rebound from defeats at the polls the last time they ran for public offices. But Sitton was the only one of the eight Republican runoff contenders who'd never won a race for elected office - and he was fresh off a GOP primary defeat in a 2012 state House race when he entered the open Texas Railroad Commission battle this year. The former House Republican who Sitton defeated with 57 percent of the runoff vote this week had a 7-2 record in political races coming into the RRC fight.
Sitton entered the runoff as a significant underdog on paper after trailing ex-House member Wayne Christian by a dozen points in the March vote. But even though Christian was favored by most of the tea party leaders whose endorsements carried unprecedented value in 2014, Sitton had the conservative activist with the most established name and longest mailing list in his corner from the word go - and that made it possible to raise big sums of money from the business establishment without destroying his hopes for some support on the right in round two.
Of all the Republicans on the statewide OT ballot this week, Sitton was probably beat up the least in the most negative campaign season on record so far in this particular state. But Sitton did a beautiful job of turning accusations on conflicts of interests he'd face as a RRC commissioner into advertising that had to help boost the financial support he'd end up receiving from many of the same oil and gas interests who he'll regulate if he defeats Democratic nominee Steve Brown in the general election.
After competing on a relatively even playing field in the first round thanks to more than $1 million that he loaned his campaign as seed money, Sitton raised six times more campaign cash for the runoff that he won with a 27-point swing in a bid that featured a balance of textbook fundamentals and creative ingenuity. But Sitton is sharing the number one spot on the statewide runoff campaign honor roll with a GOP overtime winner who prevailed in round two with a campaign that was far more unconventional in terms of strategy and loaded with a lot less dough than all of the others who celebrated OT wins this week.
Paxton turned out to be the only one of the four GOP statewide overtime victors who beat a rival who wasn't damaged goods like the candidates who lost runoffs after attempting to rebound from defeats at the polls the last time they ran for public offices. But Sid Miller - a Stephenville Republican who'll be the state's next agriculture commissioner as long as he beats a Democratic nominee that's a total unknown this fall - was the only ex-elected official who'd lost his most recent election before reversing his fortunes with a victory in a statewide runoff this week.
Miller put on a workshop on how to get maximum bang for the buck as a statewide hopeful who raised one dollar in overtime for every three that former House colleague Tommy Merritt had in his war chest for the state farm boss runoff.
With Miller correctly assuming that Merritt would bankroll his campaign with personal wealth, the world champion rodeo cowboy knew that he'd need to pull a few rabbits out of his Stetson to mitigate a substantial funding disadvantage that he anticipated. The first one was huge when he called up gun-loving rocker Ted Nugent out of the blue and charmed him into signing on as his campaign treasurer for the statewide race. Miller scored another publicity hit as the first Texas politico to express his outrage with a move by the federal government to take over some private property along the Red River. Miller lassoed free media like calves on the run at the rodeo - and he served up denials that tea party conservatives apparently found plausible when hammered on ethics with regard to political money maneuvering involving stock sales and shifts and campaign loan paybacks.
But Miller's most significant and subtle strength in the campaign game has arguably been his ability to play both sides of the political range. Miller - for example - had been one of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus' most valuable lieutenants in an enforcers role during his last legislative session. Merritt had been an original Straus backer in his first winning speaker's race five years ago. But Miller had performed a rare and delicate balancing act that kept him in good graces among the same tea party conservatives who want to oust Straus from the speaker's office. The campaign cash disparity would become a fairly moot point once Miller's name popped up on every major conservative slate complete with photos of him donning his signature smile and cowboy hat that he wore to his job as a legislator every day for 12 years.
Miller stretched the money he did raise in a way that showed he was much more ahead of the curve than folks might imagine. Miller - for example - enlisted help that proved to be very valuable from a digital media team that's young and aggressive and hungry to break into a Texas political arena that was foreign turf for all practical purposes at the start of the race. But Miller took a traditional path when it came to rounding up most of the endorsements that major state agriculture groups made in the farm and ranch commissioner runoff. After claiming more than a third of the March vote in a field of five candidates, Miller followed that up with a victory in the runoff with 53 percent of the vote as the candidate who found more ways to get more with less than anyone else on the statewide ballot in OT.
Coming Next: Best Organizational Effort in the Texas Primary Runoff