San Antonio Republicans Export a Senate Seat

A significant number of Republicans and business leaders in San Antonio decided last year that they would like to replace their longtime state senator.

They got what they were after, sort of, when Republican primary voters chose Donna Campbell in Tuesday’s runoff. She’s a transplant who lived in Columbus before moving to New Braunfels to qualify as a district resident. That means the San Antonio folks succeeded in moving the district’s home base out of their city and into the next county to the north. And they got a candidate who is beholden not to the San Antonio establishment, but to the grassroots Republicans who are sending her to Austin.

The incumbent Republican, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, has been in the Texas Senate since 1993 and served in the House for four years before that. Some of his detractors — inside and outside the district — decided he had been there long enough. Some were persuaded by Texans for Lawsuit Reform and other groups that he wasn’t with them on every single vote and should be replaced by someone who would take their side 100 percent of the time.

Others were unhappy with the public scolding he gave Texas State University System regents for picking another legislator over him when they were hiring a new chancellor.

Whatever you might think of Wentworth, he’s smart, hard-working and independent. He’s with the Republicans most of the time, but he’s also staked out some solitary positions. For instance, he has taken on the somewhat unpopular position — unpopular with the politicians, that is — that the state’s redistricting should be done by a panel that isn’t beholden to the Legislature. Another one: Senators regularly vote to suspend a rule designed to make them wait a day between their tentative and final votes on legislation. Wentworth thinks that is a good rule and won’t play in that particular reindeer game. Every once in a while, his habit becomes an obstacle, and every time it does, some official wanders over to the press table in the Senate to whine about it.

So this unofficial Society for the Abolition of Jeff Wentworth had some material to work with.

They recruited like crazy, promising financial and political support to potential Republican challengers to the incumbent.

They settled on Elizabeth Ames Jones, a Texas railroad commissioner (in spite of the title, that’s the three-member panel that regulates oil and gas in the state) and former Texas House member. At the time, she was running for the United States Senate, hoping to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison. But Jones wasn’t getting any traction in that race and switched before the filing deadline to run against Wentworth.

And she’s done this sort of thing before. She was preceded in the House by Bill Siebert, a Republican who fell out of favor with the establishment. They recruited her and knocked off that incumbent in 2000.

In that race, the political maneuverings kept the seat in San Antonio while removing the incumbent. And it all came out in the wash, because the seat is now held by Joe Straus, the Republican speaker of the House. Well played.

But Jones finished third in the primary. You can see the conspiracy start to unravel in the finance reports that followed. For the runoff, Wentworth suddenly had the financial support of business leaders like Peter Holt — Jones’ treasurer during her challenge — who gave Wentworth’s campaign $50,000 during the runoff.

The winner, Campbell, looks like the real deal: a bona fide anti-establishment Tea Party candidate. She ran against U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, two years ago, building the base of support in that overlapping district that fueled this year’s win.

She and Wentworth ran a civil campaign — a rare thing in Texas this year — and she started it by saying she didn’t want to be beholden to trade groups and lobbyists that had supported Jones.

Campbell is willing to take some help, however. She raised $84,200 before the May 29 primary, and raised $438,244 for the runoff. And on the Friday after the election, she held a fundraiser at the Austin Club, the home of the establishment in the state capital.

Now if they could just get her to move to San Antonio.

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