When this blog started in early July, rumors were rife that Ben Bentzin, the Republican nominee in Texas House District 48 (West Austin) against Democrat Donna Howard, would withdraw from the race. Several GOP sources told me that was not the case, which I posted, which a couple of e-mailers said was wrong. So I did what any self-respecting blogger would do: hedge. As we found out this week, the rumors turned out to be right after all. But not before there was a lot of drama.
Republicans wanted Bentzin to withdraw from the race. They believed he had an easy way out that would have let the Travis County party name a replacement against Howard, who won the seat by defeating Bentzin in a special election runoff last February. Bentzin is going to be working in Houston this fall, and he could have rented an apartment there and said that he would not be a continuous resident of Travis County, as is required by law. This would have made him ineligible to run, and the party could have named a replacement. (Pamela Waggoner, a member of the Leander school board, was one possibility.) But Bentzin was influenced by Tom DeLay’s abortive attempt to get off the ballot as the Republican nominee in the 22nd Congressional district. He thought he might get sued, as DeLay did, and, in any event didn’t want to be compared to DeLay. So he rejected the scheme.
Nor did he want to make the race. Like many a hopeful politician, Bentzin wanted to serve but he didn’t want to run. He didn’t like the messy but essential partisan nature of politics. He knew he would be hammered in the general election, as he had been during the special, for hiring John Colyandro in his 2002 campaign for state senator at the same time that Colyandro, as executive director of the notorious TRMPAC, was working for DeLay–whose popularity rating in Austin is around 1. I don’t mean one percent. I mean one person: Tom Craddick, who was the chief beneficiary of TRMPACs machinations to elect Republican legislators.
The consequence of Bentzin’s withdrawal is that the Republicans will not be able to field a candidate against Howard. Local Republican leaders and activists–as well as some GOP statewide operatives–are very unhappy with his decision. They believe that state election law is different from federal law and that the DeLay case would not have stood in the way of Bentzin’s withdrawing from the ballot. They are worried about the consequences for Bill Welch and Jeff Fleece, who are the GOP nominees in two other Austin legislative districts: Because Howard won’t have to raise money for her race against Bentzin, more money will be available for their Democratic opponents. And a few (not many, and not I) even think that Bentzin might have won, aided by GOP fundraising and the presence of Kay Bailey Hutchison at the top of the ticket. They recall that back in the eighties, Republican Bob Richardson lost a special election and then won the general election.
Bentzin, a former Dell executive, ends his political career with his file stamped “underachiever.” In his Senate race against incumbent Democrat Gonzalo Barrientos, I initially thought he had a chance to win. Barrientos had worn out his welcome after sixteen undistinguished years in office and a DUI citation and embarrassing videotape. But Bentzin campaigned as if he were running in a Republican primary instead of left-of-center Travis County, where even many Republicans are moderate. When the two candidates debated on the local PBS station, I was one of the two questioners, and I was surprised at Bentzin’s hard-right stances on taxes and abortion. Either he didn’t understand his constituency, or he didn’t understand politics. I left the debate no longer believing that he had a chance to win. Barrientos won the race with 52% of the vote to Bentzin’s 43%, with a Libertarian getting the balance. He did a far worse job of attracting Democratic votes than fellow Republican Rick Perry, who lost Travis County to Tony Sanchez by just 213 votes. His race against Howard in the special was even worse. Some people just aren’t cut out for politics.