Ask a Republican who’s not on Gov. Rick Perry or Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s payroll about the 2010 governor’s primary, and you’ll get a response about a well-timed trip to Palm Springs in early March, when the two candidates square off. Party faithful want to stay above the fray: Primary challenges to longstanding incumbents tend to get rough quick.
The last time a sitting governor faced a serious primary challenge, the GOP unlocked the door to the governor’s mansion for the first time since Reconstruction. After John Hill upset two-term Gov. Dolph Briscoe in the Democratic primary, Republican Bill Clements carried the general election. That was in 1978.
The Briscoe-Hill showdown provided an excuse for disgruntled Briscoe supporters — conservative Democrats already bristling within their party — to decamp for the GOP. It also crystallized the change that had been brewing for the past decade: Texas’ migration from a one-party to a two-party state.
Former State Sen. J.E. “Buster” Brown, R-Lake Jackson, who left office in 2002 as the senior ranking Republican member, said the movement to a two-party state set the stage for increasingly bitter primary fights in both parties. “In the original politics of Texas, when you had a battle in the primary, it was generally philosophical,” Brown said. “You had the liberal segment of the party and the conservative segment, but they were Democrats, and when the primary was over they remained Democrats because it was a one-party state.”
Brown, a “Democrat for Clements” after Briscoe’s defeat, entered the Senate a newly minted Republican in 1981. He unseated Democratic incumbent Babe Schwartz of Galveston, who he described as “a liberal, and proud of it.” According to Brown, their ideological differences allowed for “a great race, on the issues.” But when then-House Republican Bill Blythe challenged him in a primary a year later, Brown said the tenor of the campaign changed. As Brown put it, because Blythe had few core issues on which to distinguish himself, his campaign got personal—and tried to cast Brown as “either a crook, or an atheist,” to repel voters.
Though it didn’t involve an incumbent, the 1990 Democratic primary run-off for the governor’s seat between name-brand candidates Ann Richards (then State Treasurer) and Jim Mattox (then Attorney General) is a touchstone in the annals of ugly primary contests. The pair, who held nearly identical positions on the issues, had run together on a Democratic ticket in 1982 and 1986. But past alliances didn’t stop Mattox from circulating rumors that Richards, a recovering alcoholic, used “marijuana or something worse like cocaine, not as a college kid but as a 47-year-old elected official sworn to uphold the law” in television spots.
In races like the Richards-Mattox primary, Brown said candidates feel pressure from political consultants to shift strategy from substantive debate to “let’s check their high school records, let’s look at their marital records, let’s see if we can get a copy of their divorce.”
Carlos Uresti’s campaign might not have gotten a peek at Frank Madla’s sophomore-year trigonometry grades when he challenged the decade-long incumbent for his state senate seat in 2006, but it did accelerate a widely acknowledged feud between the Madla, Uresti, and Rodriguez political families over who controlled San Antonio’s Southside. Though Uresti jabbed Madla for his coziness to Republicans in Austin, Bexar County Democratic Party chairwoman Carla Vela said issues took a backseat to the intraparty power struggle.
“It [was] just like the Hatfields and McCoys of the Southside of San Antonio,” she said. “That was really what it was all about—who is really the powerhouse in Southside San Antonio.”
Two more Bexar County races show Republicans aren’t above primary melees, if circumstances are ripe. In 2000, Elizabeth Ames Jones, until then a political unknown from Alamo Heights, ousted Bill Siebert from the seat he had held since 1993 after his ongoing work as a lobbyist was spotlighted by hometown news outlets. A San Antonio Express-News editorial went as far as calling on primary voters to “clean house and dump state Rep. Bill Siebert, the local GOP's biggest embarrassment.”
In 2002, San Antonio Republican Jeff Wentworth fended off a cash-flush challenger in John Shields, whom conservative political action committee FreePAC backed with mailings detailing Wentworth’s “pro-gay, pro-assisted suicide, and pro-abortion” politics. Though Shields publicly denied involvement with the mailings, his campaign literature featured a quote from Pastor John Hagee calling Wentworth the “most pro-abortion” legislator in Austin. Wentworth retaliated with a complaint in the Express-News about Shields’ high-profile father-in-law: “I think the race is getting to be about Red [McCombs] and his effort to buy his son [sic] a state Senate seat.”
Amid a push by liberal Democrats in 2006 to unseat so-called “Craddick Ds" — Democrats who crossed party lines to support Republican Tom Craddick for Speaker of the House in 2003 — character issues lent a hand to challengers who landed knockout blows.
State Rep. Al Edwards of Houston, who had represented HD-146 since 1978, proved unable to deflect attacks from challenger Borris Miles that he had grown too chummy with Republican leadership. Among Democrats’ grievances against Edwards were his support of GOP House speaker Craddick and his decision to stay put as many of his party’s legislators left for Ardmore, Okla., in protest of Republican redistricting in 2003.
But Miles’ supporters also turned the race into a referendum on a civil rights leader who had lost his gravitas: Edwards became a national punch-line in 2005 when he crusaded against what he called the “epidemic of sexy cheerleading.”
(Edwards returned in 2008 to beat Miles handily, after reports surfaced about Miles’ bizarre behavior with a handgun at a holiday party, and older Black voters questioned his support of a controversial school bond issue.)
Perhaps the best indicator of how unpleasant primary challenges can get is the reluctance of some political officials to discuss them. Though Texas GOP chairwoman-elect Cathie Adams admits she’s seen the darker side of Republican primary fights, she professed a case of self-induced memory loss when asked for examples of specific races. “I try and forget them as soon as I can, because they are so wrong,” Adams said. “I don’t like [personal attacks] at all and I don’t think there’s a need in doing that. I think more than anything it makes the person dishing it out look bad.”
Adams did say that she defers to the electorate when it comes to intraparty challenges and thinks they’re a plus for the party if conducted fairly. But according to Austin lobbyist Bob Strauser, key party contributors usually feel differently: “I think the people who feel an ownership in the party, would prefer almost any result other than a contested primary because it may upset the apple cart, it may hurt them in November, who knows.”
Vela said she prefers it when up-and-coming politicians don't seek out bruising contests against Democratic incumbents. “We’re all Democrats and we should all stick together," she said. "I’m not thrilled when somebody that wants to make a name for themselves, who’s new into politics, takes on an good incumbent.”
In fact, Vela said her fellow Democrats should take a lesson from their rival party, who, despite a few notable primary slap-fights, enjoy a reputation for their aversion to public airings of tribal conflict.
“I tell people, why don’t you pay attention to the Republicans — they don’t go after their own if there’s a good incumbent sitting there.”