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Will This Travel?

Austin Republican Ben Bentzin started his latest attempt to win a seat in the statehouse with every advantage: Help from high state officials; a district drawn for a Republican; a special election called by a Republican governor for a date that was presumably to the advantage of his own party; a successful effort at keeping other Republicans out of the race; two Democrats splitting votes on their side and supposedly bettering his chances in a special election; and a huge financial advantage over everyone else in the field.

Austin Republican Ben Bentzin started his latest attempt to win a seat in the statehouse with every advantage: Help from high state officials; a district drawn for a Republican; a special election called by a Republican governor for a date that was presumably to the advantage of his own party; a successful effort at keeping other Republicans out of the race; two Democrats splitting votes on their side and supposedly bettering his chances in a special election; and a huge financial advantage over everyone else in the field.

The stakes were high for both political parties. Republicans barely won the seat in 2004, and then saw several big issues come down to one- and two-vote margins in the House last year. Rep. Todd Baxter, who resigned the post to become a cable TV lobbyist, was widely regarded by both parties as vulnerable. Baxter, a strong campaigner, won by fewer than 150 votes two years ago and was one of several lawmakers supported by now-controversial groups tied to U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay. Bentzin was supposed to secure it for the GOP.

But the nail was harder than the hammer. Bentzin lost — badly — to Democrat Donna Howard, mustering just 42.4 percent of the vote to her 57.6 percent.

The question now, for both parties: Is this portable? Could what happened in HD-48 happen in other districts in this election cycle? Was it a change in the district, or a bad candidate, or a bungled campaign, or an early sign of a tough year to be a Republican on the ballot? Maybe it's a statehouse problem?

It's a mix. Bentzin ran a weak campaign and let the Democrats introduce him to voters, tarring him with Tom DeLay and DeLay's associates and DeLay's current unpopularity, particularly in Austin. The district has been trending toward the Democrats since redistricting. Howard made an issue of public education, which appeared to resonate strongly in a legislative district where school finance and education are hot issues.

Start the autopsy with the last regular election in the district, in 2004: Baxter beat Kelly White by 147 votes, but was the lowest-performing Republican on the district's ballot that year. George W. Bush won with 53 percent, and the average statewide Republican candidate got 54.3 percent in the district. Countywide candidates — running below Baxter on the ballot — got 53 percent to 57 percent of the vote.

That's what Republican turf looks like, so Bentzin and almost every other Republican we know was surprised when, in the first round of the special election, he got 37.8 percent to Howard's 49.4 percent. Up to that point, much of the talk in GOP circles was over whether he'd win outright or need a runoff. Kathy Rider, a Democrat, finished third, with 10.4 percent. Both sides ginned up their turnout machines for the Valentine's Day runoff, and 8,343 more people voted in that round. But most of them voted for Howard.

For the runoff, Bentzin attacked Howard and dropped the odd ad campaign that dominated his first round sales pitch. He was trying to get people to vote in the second half who skipped the first, on the theory that Republicans didn't show up and that a higher turnout in that district would be more conservative. Because of Rider's performance, if Republicans couldn't change the pool of voters, they were afraid Howard would get the votes she needed and an extra 10 percent on top.

But two things stuck. Bentzin positioned himself close to Perry and the leadership in Austin in a district that's not particularly happy about state government at the moment. And the Republican let the Democrats define him for voters in the first round. He never shook it off.

Bentzin's second-round attacks — an attempt to tie Howard to an old controversy most voters didn't remember or particularly care about — didn't leave a mark. The Democratic attack on Bentzin was more contemporary, attaching him by association to the troubles of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and to his Texans for a Republican Majority, which has been in the news in Austin for almost four years. That's the group that led Republican efforts to take over the Texas House, a successful effort that also brought many of TRMPAC's officers and consultants to the attention of Travis County prosecutors and grand juries.

Austin's the center of that investigation, and Republicans will happily tell you it's an unusually liberal environment (for Texas) and that anybody with an elephant on their bumper sticker starts with a handicap. That could be right. But it's also true that Austin was one of the locales hit hardest in the tough fight over congressional redistricting, and getting carved up in that process left some resentments against DeLay and anyone associated with him, even among Republicans. Add in a tincture of Abramoff, a dash of TRMPAC, and season heavily with frustration over the school finance mess, and you've concocted the environment for an upset. Howard is a strong candidate and ran better campaign — in both the special election and the runoff.

So, does it travel? That's mainly a November question, but there's another laboratory test underway in Grand Prairie, where the resignation of Rep. Ray Allen, a Republican, triggered a special election set for February 28. Kirk England, the Republican in the race, has Allen's endorsement and is the son of a popular mayor. Katy Hubener, the Democrat, lost to Allen two years ago and was ready for a rematch when he quit to become a lobbyist. And there's a Libertarian in the race, Gene Freeman, who could be a spoiler if this gets close.

The numbers in HD-106 are a little better for the Republicans, and the voters are different, with lower average incomes and fewer college degrees than in HD-48. In 2004, Bush got 59.4 percent against Kerry; the average Republican statewide got 57 percent, and a Republican candidate for Dallas County sheriff got 55 percent of the vote while he was losing the election. Allen got 52.6 percent against Hubener. School finance is a big deal, though, and we're not aware of any ties between England and DeLay. But the results might say something about the political environment in Texas.

Sidebar: It's become a cliché to say that, in Texas politics, newspaper endorsements don't matter like they used to. That's got some truth in it, but we'd point out that you're more likely to hear it from a candidate who didn't get an endorsement than from one who did. What about help from other candidates and officeholders? Bentzin got high-visibility help from Gov. Rick Perry and Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs (who represented the district when she was in the House), apparently with no effect on voters.

The License Plate of That Truck

What hit Ben Bentzin? A series of mailers (see below) from Texas Democrats that landed in the final days before the special election in January got the credit for flipping his numbers. He won in early voting and then got spanked on Election Day. Donna Howard missed a clean win in the first round by only 73 votes.

Bentzin came back with an attack ad on TV in round two, but the Democrats were there again, tying Bentzin to Tom DeLay, dinging him on public education and questioning the veracity of his attacks on Howard. Mail didn't do everything — both sides ran extensive ground wars and phone banks to get out their votes and increased the turnout by 61 percent from the special election to the runoff.

But Republicans on the Bentzin side told us the media campaign from Howard and the Democrats turned the election. Howard was paying for and appearing in positive spots on television while Travis County's Democratic Party and the House Democratic Campaign Committee shoveled attacks on Bentzin into mailboxes throughout the district. Now that it's over, the Democrats shared some mail with us, which we're showing partly out of the sort of prurient interest only political junkies share, and partly because a lot of this could be used in other races if the candidate photos and names and just a few words were changed. Consultants in both parties tell us they've forwarded some of this — particularly the anti-DeLay stuff — to their national counterparts. For Democrats, it's a bag of ideas that can be used in congressional races. For Republicans, it's a cautionary vision of what lies ahead in those same contests.

The Democrats sent seven mail pieces (that we know of). Three — Backyard, Washer and Ethics — went to regular Democratic voters in the first round of the contest and then to independent and swing and "soft" Democratic voters in the second round. Three more — Just Ask, Zero, and V-Day — went to Democratic voters in round two. And the last ad — the "Truth Test" piece — was sent to "soft" Republicans in the runoff to dampen their enthusiasm. Some of the picture file got lost in translation, but the idea was to tell Republican voters that three of their stalwarts — Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, and Margaret LaMontagne (now Spellings) — were on Howard's side in the fight over what Bentzin called "the road to nowhere."

You can download a (large!) .pdf file with all of the spots from our Files section, at:

Or you can look at them online:

A Don't Get Out the Vote Campaign

Gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman has a new Internet cartoon asking people to skip the March primaries — and Carole Keeton Strayhorn's petitions — so they can sign petitions to put Friedman on the ballot as an independent.

The "Kinkytoon" lists the "10 things easier to do than run for governor of Texas," a lineup that includes figuring out the Marfa lights or the Dallas freeway system, agreeing on school reform, and getting indicted for election fraud. The school finance bit features a Legislature full of monkeys chewing on law books and acting up. Friedman's commercial includes pleas to register to vote, to skip the March primaries, and to sign his petitions. One section features a big red "WARNING!" over the sounds of a siren, with a yellow sign that says "Do not sign Strayhorn's petition." Voters only get one shot they can use on petitions or on primary votes.

Friedman and Strayhorn have to have about 45,540 signatures to get on the ballot, and those have to be certified by Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, who has said it could take two months to get the job done.

The Friedman cartoon/commercial is available online at this address:

The Under-50 Club

A couple of the people who were privately touting a January Rasmussen poll hit the brakes and called us this week to tell us the new numbers are just bogus. Ahem.

In January, that New Jersey firm had Gov. Rick Perry at 40 percent and Carole Keeton Strayhorn at 21 percent. Perry supporters liked that. In the first week of this month, the firm polled again and got the same sounding for Perry, but now has Strayhorn at 31 percent if the election were held today.

Score it as good news for Strayhorn, if true, but as bad news for people we haven't mentioned yet. The combined total for the two Republicans (Strayhorn, running as an independent, still calls herself a Republican), leaves only 29 percent of the votes to split between Kinky Friedman, another independent, and whichever Democrat gets out of that party's primary next month. In a hypothetical four-way race, the firm said Bob Gammage had 18 percent of the voters. In a second hypothetical contest, Chris Bell would get 13 percent, according to the pollsters. Friedman was behind the Democrats in these results

The usual caveats: The election isn't until November, the two independents aren't on the ballot yet, one Democrat will fall next month, and all kinds of things could happen in the political world.

Political Notes

Urging Texans to vote in the party primaries is, in the reckoning of Kinky Friedman's camp, another way of telling them not to sign petitions for independent candidates. And they're also ticked at Secretary of State Roger Williams for predicting it'll take him two months to check the validity of the signatures turned in by Friedman and others running under the no-label label. But they don't include Strayhorn in their camp, saying her independent campaign is "funded by money raised as a major party candidate." They're running against Perry and all them others, too. "Texas can do better than a governor who cannot govern, a comptroller who cannot count, and a Secretary of State who is not above partisan politics," said campaign director Dean Barkley.

• The Texas Parent PAC endorsed Diane Patrick, who's challenging House Public Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf in next month's GOP primary. The two Arlington Republicans have both been on the State Board of Education and Patrick's been on the Arlington ISD school board. Grusendorf is getting help from Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick in what both the leadership and the education establishment see as a key battle. Grusendorf has advocated vouchers, later start dates for school years, merit pay for teachers, and November elections of school board members — most educators oppose him on each of those positions.

• Harris County Judge Robert Eckels endorsed Rep. Peggy Hamric, R-Houston, in the four-way contest for Jon Lindsay's spot in the state Senate. Hamric, who seems downright quiet in the din of Dan Patrick andJoe Nixon, earlier got Lindsay's endorsement. Nixon, meanwhile, picked up an endorsement from fellow state Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Tomball.

• Attorney General candidate David Van Os plans to "filibuster for independence" for 24 hours at the state Capitol on March 3. He says he'll start at 6 pm that Friday and talk until the same hour the next day. He's inviting other Democrats to share the speaking chores and calls it a celebration of the 170th anniversary of the state's Declaration of Independence.

Chris Hatley, one of the Republicans challenging Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, is using a gay rights group's rankings of lawmakers to show the incumbent isn't conservative enough. Geren apparently didn't get a bad enough grade: "... a pro-homosexual website, Gay Rights Info, gives Geren a "C" for his votes in favor of legislation which stiffens penalties for crimes against homosexuals just because of their sexual preference, among other votes it deems homosexual-friendly. Most Republicans have either an F or an F- running total from Gay Rights Info," Hatley says in a press release.

• Former Webb County Judge Mercurio Martinez claims to have raised $170,000 for his statehouse race at one event. He's challenging Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, who left the race to run for Congress and then returned after his successors had assembled.

Dan Corbin, a Republican in a busy primary for Suzanna Gratia Hupp's spot in the House, got the rug pulled out from under him by another politico. Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, pulled his endorsement because of Corbin's opposition to Prop 12, the constitutional amendment that limits the liability of doctors and hospitals who lose lawsuits over medical care. But Miller didn't just pull out — he did it in a letter that was printed up and distributed all over the district by Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the group that drafted and promoted Prop. 12.

Stuck and Unstuck, Conventions, and Miscellany

Nine Democrats in the Texas congressional delegation have joined the push for funding at the Irma Rangel School of Pharmacy in Kingsville.

Funding for that facility is stuck in the state's Legislative Budget Board, and the nine U.S. Reps. sent a letter to House Speaker Tom Craddick asking him to get it unstuck. Gov. Rick Perry has come out in support of the funding for the school, as has Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. But Craddick's kept it parked, along with funding for a Texas Tech medical facility in El Paso. If it gets its money, the pharmacy school is set to open for business next fall.

Craddick and Dewhurst did, however, uncork some money for health and human services, including $8.6 million to restore cuts in the personal needs allowance for long-term care nursing home residents (they'll get $60 a month instead of $45), $180.7 million for nursing facility rate increases $27.6 million for EMS and trauma care, and $13.4 million for increased capacity in state hospitals for mental health. Those amounts include federal funds, and apparently, the LBB doesn't need to meet. Dewhurst and Craddick did it by letter.

• Dallas, Houston and San Antonio are among the 31 cities on the Republican National Committee's long list for possible national convention sites in 2008. Dallas hosted the Republicans in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was nominated for what turned out to be his reelection. Houston played host in 1992, when George H.W. Bush was nominated for his unsuccessful bid for a second term. San Antonio bid for the convention in 2000, but the GOP decided to go to Philadelphia that year. This is the first round; not all of the cities on the list are expected to bid for the convention.

Department of Corrections: We misspelled Tim Eaton's name recently, and it's spelled like you see it in this sentence.

And a follow-up: Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, won't be a candidate for chancellor at Texas Tech University. His name came up when Dr. David Smith announced his resignation from that spot, but says his name isn't in the hat.

Just Think What They Left Out

A new book on the top negative political campaigns of all time features two Texas races and three presidential contests with Texas candidates.

Mudslingers: The Top 25 Negative Political Campaigns of All Time features write-ups of the John TowerBob Krueger race for U.S. Senate in 1980, the Ann RichardsClayton Williams gubernatorial race of 1990, and the presidential contests between Lyndon Baines Johnson and Barry Goldwater in 1964, George H. W. BushMichael Dukakis in 1988, and George W. BushJohn Kerry in 2004.

The Bush-Dukakis race finished 8th on the all-time nasty list compiled by Kerwin Swint, a former campaign consultant who now teaches political science in Georgia. Ann and Claytie were 11th (though we would probably argue that the general election wasn't as tough as the Democratic primary contest between Richards, Jim Mattox and Mark White, which gets a brief mention in the chapter). Tower and Krueger are number 13 in the book, with the chapter title, "In This Corner, Little Lord Fauntleroy." LBJ-Goldwater is 22nd in the book, and the latest presidential contest was number 25. The book hops around in American history.

The most negative race, in Swint's figuring, was the race-baiting 1970 Democratic primary for governor of Alabama between George Wallace and Albert Brewer. The next one on the list happened several generations earlier, when Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams faced each other for president in 1828.

Political People and Their Moves

After 31 years at the head of what was supposed to be a five-year enterprise, Norman Newton is resigning as executive director of Associated Republicans of Texas, or ART. Newton and then-U.S. Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, started up the organization after the Republican drubbing that followed President Richard Nixon's resignation. For years, ART was the only group working steadily to increase the number of Republicans in the Texas Legislature; others joined in as a majority came within striking distance. Newton will join his son, Trey Newton, and Johnnie B. Rogers in their Newton-Rogers consulting firm. ART hasn't named a new ED.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Shalia Cowan of Dripping Springs and Angela Wolf of Austin to the governing board at the Texas School for the Deaf, and reappointed Jean Andrews of Beaumont. Cowan is an adjunct professor at Texas Tech and teaches an online course in deaf education. Wolf works in human resources at the Public Utility Commission of Texas and a member of the school's district advisory committee, and Andrews is a professor of deaf education at Lamar University.

House Speaker Tom Craddick appointed Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, to the Sunset Advisory Commission. She'll take Carl Isett's spot; he resigned that spot (not his House seat, though) because he's been deployed to Iraq.

Mark Miner, communications director for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for the last four years, is leaving state employment to try his hand as a lobster. He'll open an Austin office for Mercury Public Affairs, which is affiliated with Fleishman-Hillard.

Ginger Murray, formerly a legislative aide to Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, is back on staff as legislative director.

Deon Daugherty Allen is back in the Senate after a stint with the Quorum Report. And she's in the same spot she left, working as communications director for Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.

John Gravois, a former reporter in the Capitol Press Corps (for the late Houston Post) and now the deputy managing editor for government and politics at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is recovering from valve replacement and triple-bypass surgery. We're told the prognosis is good.

Deaths: Phil Strickland, a terrific guy who sometimes referred to himself as the only lobbyist for religion in Austin, of complications from a rare form of lung cancer. He was 64. Strickland was director of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and founder of Texans Care for Children. He was a lawyer until 1967, when he decided to take a break to fight gambling legislation.

Quotes of the Week

Vice President Dick Cheney, talking to Fox News about the South Texas hunting accident that put Austin lawyer Harry Whittington in the hospital: "It's not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."

Gov. Rick Perry, quoted by the Associated Press from a speech to the Conservative Action Political Conference: "The public expects Democrats to spend because that's what they do. On the other hand, they elect Republicans to stop that from happening, and if Republicans keep spending like Democrats, the public will elect the real thing."

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, quoted by The Dallas Morning News in support of legislation that would let the federal government fund local law enforcement to help on the Texas-Mexico border: "Whether it's a terrorist or an illegal alien, they're not going to cross the border if there's a uniformed deputy sheriff with a machine gun on the other side."

Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt, telling the Houston Chronicle that downtown surveillance cameras could ease the need for more officers: "I know a lot of people are concerned about big brother, but my response to that is if you aren't doing anything wrong why worry about it."

Texas Weekly: Volume 22, Issue 33, 20 February 2006. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2006 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email For news, email, or call (512) 288-6598.

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