May 26, 2016
Best Texas Senate Open Race
Best Texas House Open Race
Best Incumbent Campaign
Best Texas Runoff Campaign
David Allen Coe took aim at the Nashville music industry in the 1970s when he recorded a satirical number about what it would take to write the perfect country and western song. You Never Even Call Me By My Name - a collaboration between songwriters Steve Goodman and John Prine - concluded that a country song couldn't be perfect without some mention of momma and trains and trucks and getting drunk and prison.
What no one said at the time was that the perfect setting for the perfect country song would have to be East Texas - a former yellow dog Democrat haven where State Rep. Bryan Hughes won a Senate runoff this week with a campaign that he executed with seemingly-flawless precision from the start of the race to the finish. But the Mineola Republican - contrary to prevailing belief - did not run the perfect political campaign in the Senate District 1 race. Hughes for starters didn't have support from public school teachers - and he didn't even have trial lawyers in his camp despite the fact that he's one of them. Hughes didn't land any endorsements from liberal Democrats - at least none that he publicized much - even though it wouldn't come as a shock if some voted for him.
But the Hughes campaign came about as close to infallible as a political bid could ever hope to be en route to a runoff victory that he made look ridiculously easy in a contest that had the potential at the outset to be one of the hottest legislative battles in Texas in 2016.
The SD 1 race had been billed initially as a clash between a pair of conservative titans who'd been brothers-in-arms in Austin where they'd both opposed GOP House Speaker Joe Straus in the 2015 leadership election. State Rep. David Simpson of Longview and Hughes had taken turns running against Straus in the competition for speaker two years before that. Hughes vs. Simpson would have been a match made in tea party heaven if Republican hard-liners hadn't been forced to take sides in it. Red Brown - an Army general and business owner - gave moderate Republicans and independents a fallback option when he entered the race for the seat that Republican State Senator Kevin Eltife of Tyler had decided to give up after a dozen years on the job.
But Hughes, a 13-year House veteran who'd been highly popular with everyone who wasn't a Straus team member, broke from the starting gates with a pedal-to-the-medal campaign mindset that was still in high gear when he flew across the finish line in overtime. Hughes wasn't going to let a reputation as a staunch social conservative keep him building a broad base of support in a bid that would rely heavily on establishment money. That would have seemed like an all but impossible task to most Republican candidates in a state where the GOP has been bitterly torn between two warring factions. But Hughes moved swiftly to bring the big special business interests into his camp without sacrificing any of the love that he'd accumulated over time from a conservative fan base. Hughes rounded up endorsements from conventional grassroots conservatives and tea party leaders who Simpson had alienated to some degree as a maverick independent who didn't toe the line on hot-button issues like immigration and marijuana. Hughes had been more of a consistent conservative who'd forged and maintained good relations with an Austin lobby that didn't hold his anti-Straus credentials against him.
Hughes wasted no time locking down marquee endorsements from GOP statewide leaders including Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick - the Senate president who will determine the amount of clout that the East Texas lawmaker on the east side of the rotunda next year. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who'd been a House freshmen classmate in 2003, was on board with the Hughes Senate campaign from day one. But Hughes couldn't have pulled off a juggling act for the ages without the affable and ever-gracious personality and signature smile that the most heated battles never seemed to erase. Hughes has a way of making friends with anyone who has the opportunity to shake hands and shoot the breeze with him for a few minutes or more. He campaigned for the Senate like someone who'd written the book on retail politics - and he always seemed to be running like he was behind before and after he'd almost won the primary election in March outright. Hughes saved one of his best punches for last with U.S. Senator Ted Cruz as a robo-call booster on the eve of the runoff vote. It was the first time that Cruz had intervened in a down-ballot race since he'd come in second in the GOP presidential sweepstakes.
Hughes had learned the art of political balancing acts as a trial lawyer who'd been thrust into a landmark tort reform fight during his first session as a legislator. While Hughes had been handcuffed in recent years by his lack of willingness to get on the speaker team bus, that wouldn't be a problem in a runoff fight with an ally-turned-rival who'd been even more of a Straus adversary at the statehouse. Hughes can expect to flourish in a Senate where his political career will be born again for all practical purposes.
Hughes, however, can't say that he ran the perfect political campaign this year after being forced into a runoff that he didn't win with 100 percent of the vote. No candidate ever wins every single vote when there's another name on the ballot in the same race. And that's why there's no such thing as a perfect campaign. But Hughes captured more than 69 percent of the vote in a runoff battle with a very worthy foe that he didn't have to attack to beat. Hughes was the only one of five current state lawmakers to emerge victoriously from a GOP runoff on the legislative battlefield this week. And while Republicans didn't have an outsider option on the overtime ballot in SD 1, it's all but impossible to imagine Hughes losing to anyone in light of the campaign that he ran without letting up on the accelerator until the polls closed on Tuesday.
Coming in the Next Few Days: Best Open Texas Senate and House Races and More