Trial lawyers, the most reliable and generous source of cash for Texas Democrats, generally sit on the sidelines in Republican primaries.
Not this year.
They are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into three key Senate races, hoping to help elect Republicans who are more friendly to their agenda than the establishment-preferred GOP candidates.
In each case, they are going head to head with Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which has made aggressive plays in Democratic primaries despite being associated with mostly pro-Republican causes.
In the Houston area, the trial lawyers have coalesced behind Dave Norman, who is running slick negative ads against frontrunner Larry Taylor in Senate District 11 — being vacated by incumbent Sen. Mike Jackson.
Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn, past president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and a chief Taylor critic, chipped in $275,000 to Norman directly, and he gave handsomely to PACs that are providing Norman with hundreds of thousands more.
Via Texans for Insurance Reform, the trial lawyers are also giving huge sums to Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, in his tough re-election battle against former Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones. And TIR PAC has sided with Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, against Rep. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, in the race to replace retiring Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington.
Trial lawyers have helped a few friendly Republicans before, but not on this scale.
The result of their efforts will be known on primary night in the Smith-Hancock showdown. The other two may drag into runoffs, since there are three candidates in those races.
Whatever the final outcome, it could prove to be an interesting test of how trial lawyer support is perceived among GOP voters. Operatives involved in the effort to shower money on favored Republican candidates are convinced their dough doesn’t carry such an awful stench in GOP circles anymore.
The candidates on the receiving end of trial-lawyer funded attacks, along with TLR, are working to make sure GOP voters know where the money is coming from.
TLR spokeswoman Sherry Sylvester accuses Mostyn of trying to conceal his contributions by giving money to “deceptively named” groups like Conservative Voters of Texas and Texans For Insurance Reform — which in turn have poured money into efforts to defeat Taylor and other TLR-backed candidates.
“Mostyn is a liberal Democrat who supports Barack Obama and has hosted a fundraiser with Nancy Pelosi in his home,” Sylvester said. “In the last election cycle, he contributed $10 million to defeat Gov. Perry and other conservative candidates — he is virtually the only contributor to Conservative Voters of Texas.”
But what about all that money TLR has given to friendly Democrats?
Sylvester says it just proves the PAC supports independent-minded Democrats who favor pro-business lawsuit restrictions.
Mark McCaig, a former State Republican Executive Committee member and president of Conservative Voters of Texas, uses the same argument about the trial lawyer money that’s going to GOP candidates.
He said a lot of independent-minded Republicans support an individual’s right to sue people and companies who harm them. (McCaig is also an associate of Mostyn’s law firm).
McCaig also issued an email this week highlighting TLR's contributions to liberal Democrats, including the openly gay challenger to Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. Like Sylvester, he accused his opponents of hiding their real agenda.
“Texans For Lawsuit Reform is funding some of the most radical liberals seeking election to the Texas Legislature,” McCaig said. “It is time for TLR to quit masquerading as a conservative organization and admit they only care about electing those who will further their special interest agenda.”