Runoff Day
Tue April 8, 2008 11:07 am

It's amazing how much the ongoing speaker's race has affected Texas politics. There is no corner of the political universe that it doesn't touch. Once upon a time legislative runoffs were little noticed events, which only the lobby paid attention to. Now everybody looks at them because of their potential impact on the speaker's race, and because of the high stakes, the amounts of money spent and the viciousness of the campaigns are quite high.

A general comment about the implications for the speaker's race: All of the runoffs are for Republican seats. In ordinary circumstances, the winner will pledge to Craddick. The West-Lewis race is not an ordinary circumstance. The other runoffs all involve open seats, and the winner is likely to be for Craddick. What is the advantage of not pledging? Besides, pledges are worth about as much as the paper they are written on these days. Nothing matters until the actual vote for speaker.

The most important race for Craddick is the Buddy West-Tryon Lewis battle in Odessa. West is not saying who he will support for speaker, but the Craddick forces regard him as an anti-Craddick vote. Craddick went on the air in Odessa to say that he was not supporting West. The race has seen three major developments. The first was that the two candidates who did not make the runoff both endorsed West, and not just passively. They have been helping put out West's signs. The second was an ill-advised visit to Odessa by anti-Craddick speaker candidates to say that West had really supported Craddick after all. It was a fiasco, and it gave Craddick an excuse to get into the race against West. The third came when the Odessa American sharply criticized West for not debating Lewis, who is a former state district judge. The fourth is a very large early vote turnout that suggests that the total turnout for the election could be as large as the vote in the primary. What is the significance of that vote? You can interpret it two ways. One, Lewis's ability to raise money is paying off in getting out the vote of Republicans who believe that Craddick's speakership has been good for Odessa. Two, there's a Craddick backlash of voters who don't like a Midlander messing in their politics.

Martha Tyroch and Ralph Sheffield have been hammering each other in the Bell County race to succeed Dianne Delisi. I think Tyroch would make much the better legislator of the two. She is politically experienced (Temple city council) and would have less of a learning curve. Sheffield is a restaurateur who has never participated in government and has a long history of trouble with paying his taxes. Tyroch's vulnerability was a business trip to Washington on city business in which she rolled up some lavish expenses. They are explainable -- they wined and dined government officials and brought home a $2 million package for Temple -- but as the runoff campaign developed, Sheffield got in the first blow of negative campaigning, and Tyroch was on the defensive for most of the campaign. (Sheffield's campaign materials, alas, quoted this blog's observations about Tyroch's expenditures.) The winner is likely to support Craddick.

The race for Fred Hill's seat matches Randy Dunning against Texas Instruments executive Angie Chen Button. The best candidate, Jim Shepherd, didn't really have a constituency and got knocked out in the primary. Of the two who are left, Button is by far the superior candidate. She has a long-as-your-arm list of civic activism. Her opponent, Randy Dunning, is on the nut fringe of the Republican party. A former Garland city council member, he is way out on there, and I mean way way out; he has an underground bunker on his property as well as radio towers. If Dunning wins, the Democrats could pick up the seat in the fall.

The race for the Mike Krusee seat in Williamson County is between Bryan Daniel and Dee Hobbs. The lobby poured a lot of money into Daniel's race, but money is sort of superfluous in this district. Austin TV and radio is too expensive to buy. Daniel is a slick, prepackaged, cookie-cutter candidate. Hobbs is a prosecutor in county court. In theory, Hobbs has the edge because the eastern side of the district outvotes the western side. I think either candidate is a Craddick vote, but Hobbs is likely to be more independent as a legislator than Daniel.

The last runoff is an under-the-radar battle for the Robert Talton seat between Ken Legler and Fred Roberts. Legler got high marks for his service on the TCEQ advisory committee. Like the Williamson County race, this Harris County battle is one where the cost of using media is so high that money doesn't matter much. Roberts is a teacher and should have education community support, but, remember, some educators may have voted Democrat in the primary and can't vote in the Republican primary.

One other runoff is worth mentioning. It's the race for the Republican nomination in the 22nd Congressional District for the right to face off against Nick Lampson. Shelley Sekula Gibbs, who won a special election to serve the final weeks of Tom DeLay's unexpired term in 2006, is opposed by former John Cornyn staffer Pete Olson. Sekula Gibbs's performance as DeLay's interim successor was spectacularly unsuccessful; her bizarre efforts to promote an agenda at a time when Congress was winding down made headlines in the Washington Post. Still, this is an important race. If Olson wins the runoff, national Republican strategists are likely to pour money into the district to help unseat Lampson. If Sekula Gibbs wins, the money may not be forthcoming. You can bet that Mike Jackson, facing a challenge from Joe Jaworski for his state Senate seat, would love to piggyback on some of that money.

I seem to have omitted the Travis County DA's race. This is the position charged with overseeing legislative ethics. The contenders are Rosemary Lemberg, first assistant to the incumbent, Ronnie Earle, and Mindy Montford, another assistant DA. Montford has substantial backing from the lobby, who, I am sure, are interested only in good government. I'm for whoever the lobby isn't for.

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