Heading into Tuesday’s special Republican runoff in Senate District 22, former state Sen. David Sibley, the favorite, said the big question would be the size of the turnout. High turnout, he figured, would bode well for his chances.
And turn out voters did — but for Sibley’s opponent, Brian Birdwell, a political novice with a personal narrative apparently compelling enough to put him over the top. The race was not close: Birdwell won with 58 percent of nearly 25,000 votes cast.
Birdwell was working in the Pentagon on 9/11 and suffered severe burns when terrorists crashed an airliner into the building, a story he told and retold on the campaign trail. After a lengthy recovery, he now earns his living as a public speaker and, with his wife, operates a nonprofit called Face the Fire, which combines Christian ministry with fundraising for burn victims and their families. He could not be reached for comment on his victory late last night.
At this point, Birdwell has only won the right to serve out the remainder of outgoing state Sen. Kip Averitt’s current term, which ends in January. Averitt resigned from the Senate in March, citing health problems. He dropped his reelection campaign even earlier but was obligated to remain on the ballot and managed to win the primary without lifting a finger. That means he’s still the Republican nominee for SD-22 in the November general election. Despite having no intention of serving another term, he has kept his name in play, allowing him to reverse course and reclaim his seat — a path he may choose in light of Birdwell's victory.
The reason is that Averitt fears Birdwell could be declared ineligible to serve. Through the special election campaign, Birdwell was questioned about whether he met the constutionally mandated five-year residency requirement that would have allowed him to run in the district. That's because he voted in a Nov. 7, 2006, election in Viriginia. No legal challenge to Birdwell's residency was ever mounted by Sibley or any other opponent during the special-election campaign, but Averitt worries that, if he drops out and Birdwell replaces him as the GOP's general election nominee, the Democrats would mount such a challenge and win, effectively snatching the seat.
(If Averitt were to drop out, state law stipulates that 10 local party chairs would choose his replacement on the ballot — logically Birdwell, the incumbent. The Democrats would also get to choose a candidate, even though no Democrat filed against Averitt originally. Yes, it's confusing.)
Averitt told the Tribune on Tuesday morning that there was "a remote chance" he might once again grace the upper chamber if Sibley didn't pull through. “There are circumstances that could result in Republicans not having a candidate on the November ballot, and that is problematic,” he said. “I’m very concerned about that.”
In April, a retired appeals court judge issued a declaratory judgment that Birdwell did indeed meet the five-year state residency requirement. But when the Waco Herald-Tribune put it to legal experts, they questioned the ruling, citing the fact that only one side of the case — Birdwell's — was represented.
In the meantime, Birdwell’s triumph represents yet another victory this year for the no-compromise wing of the Republican party. A central attack raised — accurately — by Birdwell has been that Sibley, in his post-Senate lobbying career, donated repeatedly to Democrats. Asked if his lobbying job may have hurt him, Sibley said, “It hasn’t helped." In fact, it looks like it hurt enough to negate the backing of some heavy hitters: former President George W. Bush; U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis; state Reps. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, and Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie; and, of course, Averitt.
In a statement Tuesday night, Sibley thanked his supporters, congratulated Birdwell and said he remained committed to the state and the district. “My wife Pam and I have lived in this district for 34 years," he said, "and look forward to watching our children live and grow in central Texas.”