Eight insights from the Texas primary runoffs

Yesterday, the Texas Democratic and Republican parties held runoffs in those races in which no candidate won an absolute majority of the vote in the March 1 primaries.  The contests lacked the visibility and drama of the 2012 (e.g., Ted Cruz vs. David Dewhurst) and 2014 (e.g., Dan Patrick vs. David Dewhurst and Ken Paxton vs. Dan Branch) runoffs, but were nonetheless consequential in several respects.  Below are eight insights drawn from contests that took place throughout the state.

1. Turnout was low, very low. In sharp contrast to March, when Republicans set a record for turnout and Democrats had their highest turnout since 2008, participation in the runoffs was anemic. Only 2.7 percent of registered voters (1.9 percent of the voting age population) cast a ballot in the Republican primary, and an even more meager 1.3 percent of registered voters (1.0 percent of the voting age population) participated in the Democratic primary (these are the statewide numbers; actual Democratic turnout was slightly higher due to notable under voting in the party’s one statewide contest in some areas with more competitive and visible local Democratic primaries).

2. Those who did make the effort to vote could take some pride in knowing that their vote really did “make a difference.” Five state House races were decided by fewer than 300 votes, including two where the difference separating the winner from the loser was less than 50 votes.

3. In the on-going GOP Texas House civil war between portions of the party’s movement conservative wing and portions of the centrist conservative faction aligned with Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), both sides had reason to celebrate. However, in the two highest profile GOP house runoffs, the anti-Straus candidates were victorious.  In House District 73, Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg bested state Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels) 55.4 percent to 44.6 percent.  In House District 128, Briscoe Cain of Deer Park narrowly defeated Wayne Smith (R-Baytown) 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent, with only 23 votes separating the two candidates.  Both Miller and Smith had launched very negative personal attack ads against their respective rivals near the end of the runoff campaign, a strategy that in the end did not bear fruit in either race.

4. Republican Latino outreach efforts suffered a blow in the U.S. House District 15 primary, where Tim Westley of Selma defeated Ruben Villarreal of Rio Grande City 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent. Villarreal, a former mayor of Rio Grande City, is one of the Texas Republican Party’s leading figures in the Rio Grande Valley, ran a professional campaign, and outspent his relatively unknown rival by a factor of 10.  CD-15 was not going to be in play this November, especially with Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket, and the winner of the Democratic runoff (Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen) will be headed to Washington, D.C. in January.  However, Villarreal is a visible actor in Valley Republican politics and one of the GOP’s most experienced and respected figures in the region.  His loss to a relative unknown once again raises some concerns about how open the Texas Republican Party is to Latino politicians.

5. In state House District 27, the efforts by some Democratic organizations to rally behind challenger Angelique Bartholomew of Missouri City fell short, and state Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City) was re-elected 52.9 percent to 47.1 percent. As a result, in spite of his conviction for barratry (ambulance chasing), a more than half-million dollar civil judgment against him for keeping settlement money that should have gone to a mother whose daughter died in an auto accident, and a generally sketchy legal history, Reynolds will return to Austin in January for another two-year term.  Since Reynolds’ re-election bid enjoyed the implicit or explicit support of most Texas Democrats (with Amber Mostyn, John Eddie Williams and Annie’s List representing three noteworthy exceptions), his victory undermines the ability of Texas Democrats to criticize Attorney General Ken Paxton for his current legal imbroglio.

6. Neither of the two Republican Texas Senate runoffs were even remotely close. Unsurprisingly, state Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) handily defeated state Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) in Senate District 1, 69.3 percent to 30.7 percent.  More surprisingly, Dawn Buckingham of Austin easily bested state Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene) 61.3 percent to 30.7 percent in Senate District 24.  Buckingham is likely to have a voting profile in the Texas Senate relatively similar to that of outgoing SD-24 Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), and thus her arrival is unlikely to affect the ideological balance within the Texas Senate.  That is not the case in SD-1, where outgoing Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) was the Senate’s least conservative Republican in 2015, while Hughes is likely to be among the Senate’s more conservative members when he moves from the west wing to the east wing of the Capitol in January, thus pulling the Texas Senate a little further to the right in 2017; this comes on the heels of the substantial rightward shift we saw in 2015.

7. Texas avoided providing elites on the coasts with more fodder for satire regarding Texas politics when Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) defeated Mary Lou Bruner (R-Mineola) in the State Board of Education District 9 contest, 59.2 percent to 40.8 percent. Bruner’s controversial statements finally got the better of her, although it would appear that the silver bullets that defeated her campaign were her factually incorrect statements regarding public education in Texas, not those which garnered national attention, such as claiming that President Barack Obama was a prostitute to support his drug habit or that Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush gave the Alamo away to the United Nations.  In the end, educators (and their friends and families) across the district rallied against Bruner due to disagreement with her positions on education policy, the belief that she would not be a good representative of the district’s interests, and the embarrassment they felt her election would bring to the region.  And, as the campaign entered the homestretch, many tea party activists who had previously supported Bruner came to the conclusion that were she to win, she would have been more of a liability than an asset for the movement conservative cause in Texas.

8. And, in the Democratic Party’s sole statewide contest, the virtually unknown Grady Yarbrough of Flint defeated the virtually unknown Cody Garrett of Austin to capture the party’s nomination for railroad commissioner, and will face off against (and almost certainly lose to) former state Rep. Wayne Christian (R-Center) in November. Christian narrowly defeated Gary Gates (R-Rosenberg) in the GOP primary runoff.  Between February 21 and May 14, Yarbrough spent a sum total of $1,203 on his statewide campaign.  In March, the 79-year-old Yarbrough and Garrett had finished ahead of the Democratic Party’s one high quality railroad commissioner candidate, former state Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth), underscoring the Texas Democratic Party’s continuing organizational and logistical woes statewide.

Mark P. Jones is the fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University.