A Very Long Engagement in SD-25

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, during debate on higher education bill SB5 on May 3, 2011.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, during debate on higher education bill SB5 on May 3, 2011.

In one form or another, the SD-25 race will assuredly extend beyond May 29. To hear him tell it, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, was on track to win his primary in SD-25 outright at the beginning of the month. “I’m no longer on that trajectory,” he says now.

Wentworth blames his recent slump on negative ads run by Elizabeth Ames Jones, former chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, that accuse him of double-dipping with the state and his campaign. He has responded to the ad with a defamation suit, which Jones filed a motion to dismiss on Thursday.

Patrick Isenberg, a spokesman for the Jones campaign, says they expect to win outright.  While Wentworth concedes that Jones’ numbers, according to polls he’s seen, have recently ticked up, he believes the chief beneficiary of the momentum shift has been a candidate who has not engaged in the legal back-and-forth.

“I think it’s not only possible, it may be even likely that there will be a run-off, and it will be between me and Donna Campbell,” he says.

It would be a surprise. After all, Campbell — an emergency room doctor who moved to New Braunfels for this race — has significantly fewer financial resources than either of the two candidates.

The sources of that funding have been a key issue in the race. Wentworth’s campaign has spotlighted the influx of contributions to Jones from the Texans for Lawsuit Reform’s PAC — repeatedly pointing out that they are a Houston-based organization — and TLR’s financial backers.

Sherry Sylvester, a spokeswoman for TLR, says it is misleading to conflate the contributions TLR PAC and its supporters, many of whom also happen to be longtime Jones supporters.  Jones has received about $690,000 from TLR PAC specifically. A press release from TLR noted that Wentworth had received comparable amounts of money — nearly $650,000 — from Texans for Insurance Reform, which receives significant amount of money from Houston-based trial lawyer Steve Mostyn.

Rather than get in the middle of that fight, Campbell has tried to position herself as the alternative to the political squabblers. A recent release from her campaign described Wentworth and Jones “two establishment politicians with liberal-leaning voting records, noting that a study by Rice University political science professor Mark Jones had found little daylight between their ideological leanings.

No matter which of the three — or which two of the three — ends up on top on May 29, the legal battle between Wentworth and Jones will continue. “I’m just not going to be called a felon, essentially, during a campaign and say, ‘Oh well, that’s just campaigning,’” Wentworth says.

Jones doubled down on the allegations of double-dipping, filing a legal motion to dismiss Wentworth’s suit.  A hearing is currently set for June 1.

Jones’ lawyer noted in a letter to Wentworth’s that should the motion be overruled — as Wentworth insists it will, and the Jones camp insists it won’t — they will “want to promptly take Mr. Wentworth’s deposition.”