Bad day for conservatives: the anger that wasn't there
Wed March 3, 2010 1:15 pm

This was supposed to be an unpredictable election due to the tea parties and the Medina candidacy. It was supposed to be an election in which angry conservatives rose up and smote incumbents. Nothing remotely like that occurred. Republican congressional candidates, who might have been tainted by Washingtonitis, won with ease; the closest race was Ralph Hall's 57% victory. In fact, this was a bad election for conservatives, with one exception--Rick Perry. He was a ten-year incumbent in an election cycle that was supposed to be terrible for incumbents, but his keen political instincts enabled him to get out in front of the tea party movement early and become its champion instead of its victim.

One of the undercurrents in this election was that conservatives disgruntled by Joe Straus's defeat of Tom Craddick in the 2009 speaker's race saw an opportunity to destabilize him by running hard-right Republicans against moderates on his team. Todd Smith was assailed for holding up Voter ID; he won with surprising ease. Vicki Truitt was assailed for offering a local option gasoline tax; she dispatched three opponents without needing a runoff. Burt Solomons had an unexpectedly close race but prevailed. Chuck Hopson, who switched from Democrat to Republican, infuriated Republicans in his district by announcing that he would continue to vote as he had in the past--and smashed his two opponents. Most of the opposition didn't come from the grass roots; it came from self-appointed kingmakers like Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Michael Quinn Sullivan. Incumbency proved to be mightier than ideology. The voter anger never materialized; it metamorphosized into a brief infatuation with Medina and faded away after she self-destructed on the Glen Beck radio show.

A bonus for Straus: One Republican he surely didn't want to see in the House was former Legislative Council director Milton Rister, a longtime Republican operative and hatchet man who is close to Craddick and Dewhurst. Rister was running for the Gattis open seat, but Dr. Charles Schwertner won that four-person race without a runoff.

In the end, only five incumbent legislators lost, three Democrats (Al Edwards, Dora Olivo, Tara Rios Ybarra) and two Republicans (Betty Brown and Tommy Merritt), and none of the losses could be blamed on voter anger or ideology. Rios Ybarra could not overcome issues in her personal life that became public, and the others lost for the typical reason why legislators lose: They stayed too long and had too little to show for it. Brown could also attribute her loss to the suburbanization of her district.

The State Board of Education races, which had a higher profile this year than usual, also brought bad news for conservatives in the Republican primary. Thomas Ratliff, son of former lieutenant governor Bill Ratliff, defeated Don McLeroy, the controversial former board chairman and a self-described creationist. The bulk of the votes in the district are in Brazos and Collin counties; McLeroy won Brazos big and Collin small, but Ratliff was able to overtake him in the rural areas in between and up to the Red River. In another swing race, Brian Russell, who home schools his children, carried the conservative banner against two educators, Marsha Farney and Rebecca Osborne. Farney leads going into the runoff with 35.51% to Russell's 35.31%. That amounts to 203 votes. Osborne's supporters are likely to back Farney in the runoff -- if they show up to vote. Russell's supporters, many of them religious conservatives, will show up.

Among the losers in this race was the Republican party. The GOP needs to broaden its base to include Hispanics, but progress has been incremental at best. The defeat of Railroad Commission chairman Victor Carrillo by David Porter, an Anglo CPA from Midland who put no effort into his race, should be an embarrassment to the party. Carrillo didn't even make it to 40% of the vote. It is apparent that the decisive factor in this race was one candidate's Hispanic surname. Carrillo's defeat reminds me of when Xavier Rodriguez, whom Perry had appointed to the Supreme Court, lost his seat to Steve Smith. Perry did little to help Rodriguez and made no discernible effort to help Carrillo. In another setback, Victor Leal, a Panhandle restaurateur, lost his bid for the seat vacated by David Swinford to Walker "Four" Price.

THE REPUBLICAN RUNOFF RACES

Fred Brown vs. Gerald "Buddy" Winn (Bryan-College Station). Brown will carry an 18-point lead into the runoff against former Winn, a former Brazos County tax assessor. The fate of the state does not depend on this race.

Delwin Jones vs. Charles Perry (Lubbock). This is another crucial race for Straus. Jones takes a 7-point lead into the runoff, but the conservatives will be after him. Perry is a far-right conservative. His Web site says, "I’m all of the things that will drive Austin liberals crazy, but make the folks here at home proud." Perry may have an edge because candidates backed by conservative organizations have an easier time getting their voters to come out for a runoff. But Jones will have the ag interests on his side. The cautionary note is that if there was any theme in this primary, it was that members who had stayed too long did not fare well. Jones has stayed a l-o-n-g time. An endorsement by third-place finisher Zach Brady could be decisive for whoever gets it.

John Gordon vs. Larry Gonzales (Round Rock). The winner of this Williamson County race faces targeted Democratic incumbent Diana Maldonado. Gordon has a 3-point lead. Gonzales is regarded as an ally of the Craddickite faction.

Mabrie Jackson vs. Van Taylor (Plano). The winner gets the Republican nomination for the open seat created by Brian McCall's retirement. Most readers know about this race. Jackson, a quintessential mainstream Republican who had a career as a Plano city council member and a civic do-gooder, leads by 8 points. Taylor is a frenetic office-seeker. After losing a congressional race to Chet Edwards, Taylor ended up in Plano. He has spent at least $650,000 so far. Jackson accused her opponents of "resume fraud" for claiming longtime ties to Plano. Her campaign has labeled her runoff opponent "Moving" Van Taylor. This is another race between Straus's kind of Republican and a Republican who would gravitate to the Craddickites, or what is left of them. The attack machine will be all over this contest.

Mark Griffin vs. John Frullo (Lubbock). Another quintessential race between a conservative and a mainstream Republican. At stake is the seat of Carl Isett, who did not seek reelection. Isett contributed $30,000 of his own campaign funds to Frullo and calls Frullo "the only true conservative in this race." Frullo has all the conservative endorsements--right to life, home schoolers, young conservatives, the usual suspects. That is very useful when it comes to getting voters to the polls in a runoff. Griffin is the Texas Tech regent whom Perry asked to step down after he made favorable comments about Hutchison. He holds a 5-point lead going into the runoff. This race is of high importance for Straus. He would love to trade in Isett for Griffin.

Dan Huberty vs. Dr. Susan Curling (Kingwood). The primary was expected to be a close race among four strong candidates, but Huberty blew by everyone to post 48.73% He holds a lead of just under 29 points over Curling. Huberty is endorsed by Parent PAC. If he prevails, which seems likely the trade of Joe Crabb for Huberty is extremely beneficial to Straus.

Paul Workman vs. Holly Turner (Austin). The winner faces Valinda Bolton in a race Republicans have targeted. This was a rock- 'em, sock- 'em primary in which Workman led Turner by 4. Workman attacked Turner, whose husband Chris is a political consultant (the Murphy-Turner firm), for moving into the district and never having voted there. Turner attacked Workman for giving money to Democrats (Kirk Watson, Sharp, Laney, Patrick Rose, Dawnna Dukes). Workman led Turner 39.40% to 35.57%. You know it's going to be a gloves-off runoff when the spouse of one of the contestants is a political consultant.

Jack O'Connor vs. Dianna Williams (Houston). The winner will take on Hubert Vo. I don't think Vo is vulnerable, so no further analysis is called for.

UNCLE!

Summing up: I don't see how the primary could be viewed as anything less than a disaster for conservatives who wanted to dethrone Straus. The right fired its best shots and all they could do was beat poor Tommy Merritt. TLR didn't fare well. Michael Quinn Sullivan whiffed. I'm told that the Speaker's office has been busy all day fielding calls from conservative members who are ready to say Uncle.

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