If there were any lingering doubts that the GOP primary race for Senate District 25 might not stand out as a no-holds-barred brawl, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth’s new TV ad probably took care of them.
The San Antonio Republican’s ad portrays challenger Elizabeth Ames Jones, the former chairwoman of the Texas Railroad Commission, as a marionette under the control of “a big business special interest group from Houston,” referring to the lobbyist group Texans for Lawsuit Reform.
Wentworth has represented the district, which stretches from northern San Antonio to southern Austin and west into the Hill Country, for the last 19 years. In that time, he’s developed a reputation for marching to the beat of his own drum on several issues, and that has made him some enemies who are now mounting one of the most formidable challenges he has faced. Jones and Donna Campbell, an emergency room physician, are both coming at him from his right flank — and the former has some well-heeled backers.
The winner of the GOP primary is expected to enter the general election with a strong advantage over Democrat John Courage and Libertarian Edward Carta, neither of whom have primary challengers.
Jones said she’s grateful for TLR’s support as well as that of others, including many from outside the district — which Wentworth has criticized. “I hope they’ll keep giving, and I hope they’ll contribute more,” she said. “It takes a lot of the green stuff to run against an entrenched incumbent who’s getting all of the lobby except for a couple who are endorsing me.”
Not surprisingly, Wentworth, who concedes that he will probably be outspent in the race, doesn’t see it that way. He said, “This is all about buying a Senate district and having a compliant pawn taking orders from people in Houston that don’t like my independence.”
TLR has previously supported Wentworth, but TLR spokeswoman Sherry Sylvester said in an email, “We took a close look at his record over the past few sessions, and it was clear he had become an ally of our opponents.”
Wentworth insists that he has voted with TLR more than 90 percent of the time since he’s been in office, but Sylvester contends that he has only supported their bills that were uncontested by the time they reached the Senate floor. With the 2012 election looming, TLR began to reach out to potential challengers. Or, as Wentworth puts it: “They were just flailing about trying to find anybody to run against me.”
Jones, who honed her political skills under Karl Rove’s tutelage in the office of Gov. Bill Clements, had been serving on the Railroad Commission and at one point eyed the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Jones said that she will not be the puppet Wentworth portrays in his ad. “Lawsuit reform is a good thing, not a bad thing. So I’m glad to have the support of them, and they know that’s how I believe — and strongly,” she said.
But Campbell also argues that Jones will be beholden to TLR, and offers as evidence the frequency with which she brings up tort reform.
“She speaks of that often,” Campbell said of Jones. “But there’s been a lot of good tort reform. That’s not the central issue.”
Campbell doesn’t have the financial backing or reserves of her other two candidates, but she has some good will among some conservatives after a strong, though unsuccessful, showing against U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, in 2010.
She said constituents again asked her to run against Wentworth. As to why she went for it, Campbell said, “I knew he was the least conservative Republican senator that we have, at least on his values. He is pro-choice, and I am 180 degrees opposite. I am pro-life.”
Wentworth does not shy from his pro-choice stance, which he asserts is the more conservative view. “I really feel quite hypocritical about hairy-legged males who will never be pregnant and never have that life-altering decision to make being the ones writing the rules for the opposite gender as though we had nothing to do with their condition,” he said.
“Abortion is either the only issue or the most important issue of every opponent I’ve had in a Republican primary,” Wentworth said.
Some, like outspoken conservative commentator Michael Quinn Sullivan — whom Wentworth calls “a paper tiger” — have labeled him “the most liberal Republican senator in Austin.” But a study of the state senators’ partisanship by Rice University professor Mark Jones puts him in the middle of the Republican pack in terms of conservatism.
Before challenging Wentworth from the right, Campbell had to move into the district. She said she was looking to move anyway, and began leasing a house in New Braunfels.
“This is not about geography,” Campbell said. “It’s about values.”
Geography played a large part in Wentworth’s opening parry against Jones, as well. As she began to gear up for the SD-25 race, she was still on the Railroad Commission, prompting Wentworth to raise hackles over a constitutional provision that requires railroad commissioners to live in the state’s capital.
She hit back by raising a Travis County district attorney investigation of Wentworth for lobbying state agencies — something he pointed out did not yield any results.
Jones ultimately stepped down from the commission. On the paperwork she filed to run for the race, Jones wrote that she had lived in the district for one month. On Campbell’s filing, it’s just over two months.
“Of the million people that I’ve represented since the last census, not one is so unhappy with my service that they’re filing against me,” Wentworth said. “Someone from Columbus, though, moves in around Labor Day, and somebody from Tarrytown moves in around Halloween, and they announce that they’re God’s gift to Senate District 25.”
Jones, who like Wentworth graduated from Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio, questions how he could sleep at night after insinuating that she’s not from the area, which her family has inhabited for generations.
The district has become more conservative since Wentworth first entered office, she said, questioning how strong his desire is to remain in that office.
In recent years, Wentworth penned public screeds against the Texas State University System regents’ decision-making process after coming in second in their search for a new chancellor. He’s also been open to being courted by Texas A&M University. He said those institutions sought him out, not vice versa, and he would not be running if he didn’t want to be in the Senate.
There are two pieces of unfinished business — bills that have had difficulty moving in previous sessions — that he would like another shot at. One would establish an independent, bipartisan redistricting commission. Another would lead a national effort to have the states call a constitutional convention to make some amendments he said are vitally needed at the federal level: limits to congressional terms, a balanced budget mandate, allowing the president to make line-item vetoes in the budget, and granting state legislatures the capability to repeal acts of Congress if two-thirds of them can agree.
When asked what issues she’d like to tackle, Jones said, “Good education policy. Bold new ideas. Making sure that the next generation of leaders have the tools it will take to be successful in the new economy.”
Campbell, the self-described “best-kept secret in Senate District 25,” said that she will be committed to “getting Texans back to work” and changing the political culture. “I believe the way to win is the fact that people are tired of politics as usual,” she said. “My opponents fight back and forth. That’s politics as usual.”
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