A High Dropout Rate in U.S. Senate Race in Texas

Roger Williams in ad
Roger Williams in ad

Candidates are dropping out of the U.S. Senate race in Texas faster than teenagers drop out of Texas high schools. It’s been a month of un-declaration in the Republican race to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Before you say it’s too early to think about this, remember that the primaries are in March — eight months from now — and that a serious candidate will have to pile up enough money for that contest by the end of the year. How much is enough? Probably a bare minimum of $5 million and preferably closer to $10 million. And donors can’t give more than $2,500 each. It’s an obstacle.

Hutchison announced early this year that she won’t seek re-election in 2012, prompting a stampede of Republican candidates. Two of those contenders jumped out this month, both opting to run for Congress in a newly drawn district in North Texas. What are they running from? Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the early favorite in polls and the certain leader in early money, is set to declare his candidacy in a couple of weeks. State Senator Dan Patrick, Republican of Houston, is looking. Ted Cruz, the former Texas solicitor general is gathering conservative endorsements and support. Elizabeth Ames Jones, a railroad commissioner, is in. And Tom Leppert, a former mayor of Dallas is, with significant self-help, leading the pack in fundraising.

Michael Williams, the former Texas Railroad Commissioner, took flight first, getting into the race for a new congressional seat and saying, frankly, that Dewhurst’s “shadow” over the race makes it a tough proposition for anyone else. Dewhurst is a brand name who has the personal wealth to finance the race, and “he’s the lieutenant governor and will still be lieutenant governor if he loses,” Williams points out. All of that gives pause to donors and other supporters, no matter who they’d like to elect next year.

Roger Williams, a car dealer and former Texas Secretary of State (and no relation to Michael), jumped in this week. He got into the Senate race in 2010, when everyone in Texas politics expected Hutchison to resign from the Senate for what turned out to be an unsuccessful bid for governor. They weren’t speculating — she announced plans to quit before changing her mind. Roger Williams and Jones, who had declared their interest, remained in the race, saying they’d run when her term ended. Now Williams is out, saying the move is not a commentary on his chances in the Senate race, but that he left for the congressional contest because “it was never about the title” and because “hundreds of people in the district asked me to run” after hearing that the Legislature had drawn one of the state’s four new districts in his back yard.

Neither Williams was getting much traction in the Senate race, with early polls putting both in the single digits and early campaign finance reports showing them both struggling to raise the kind of money it takes to run statewide in Texas. It’s a big and expensive state for politicians, whether they’re traveling, sending mail or buying television time. Each might have cleared the financial hurdle, but now they won’t have to; Texas congressional races are considerably cheaper than Senate races.

The 2012 Texas ballot will be crowded, with a greater-than-usual number of supplicants. There’s a presidential race, which always sucks political money out of the state. Gov. Rick Perry is potentially a candidate in that race, so he might be dragging the fundraising sack. Because of redistricting, all 31 state Senate seats will be on the ballot (instead of half). And new statehouse maps mean many of those races will also be competitive. Take most of the statewide seats off the ballot — they’ll be up in 2014 — but add the race for the U.S. Senate.

These seats don’t come open very often — the state has only had six Senators in the last 50 years, if you don’t count appointees who only held the office for a few months (and only eight if you do count them). They attract some of the richest and best-known candidates, and races like this are harder to win.

For some, a new congressional seat looks a lot safer.

 

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