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In West Texas, Tuesday May Just Be First Round

In the Panhandle and South Plains, the political races are marked by redistricting, rematches, retirements — and resentment toward Washington, D.C.

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What do you get when your new legislative district has 17 counties, and only one of them is in your old district?

If you're Rep. Jim Landtroop, R-Plainview, you get three Republican primary opponents and, unless things bounce just right, a contest that will produce a runoff on July 31.

His bid for a second term in HD-88 is one of several contested races in the Panhandle and South Plains — races marked by redistricting, rematches, retirements and resentment toward Washington, D.C.

State Rep. Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon, isn't running for re-election in HD-68, and the race for his seat drew four Republicans. That one's got 22 counties in it, a splatter on the map that includes Shamrock and Route 66 on the north, reaches south nearly to Abilene, west to Garza County, next to Lubbock, and east to Cooke County, just north of Denton. The land is on the west side of the district, where Hardcastle lives, but the biggest populations are on the east side of the district.

Those are the two biggest House districts — measured by the number of counties — in the state. There's another (though geographically smaller) seat in play in the region: a rematch between Rep. Charles Perry and former Rep. Delwin Jones, both of Lubbock, in HD-83.

Perry is favored to win, but he was a surprise victor against Jones two years ago, a political newcomer who became part of a wave of conservatives swept into office in the 2010 elections. Now he's the favorite and Jones, who turned 88 last month, is trying to claw his way back. Jones has been through this before: He served as a Democrat from 1964 to 1973 and lost his seat to a young Pete Laney, sat out for years and in 1988, running as a Republican, won the district he held until Perry came along.

One race in the area is interesting just because of who's in it. U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, is being challenged by the local Republican Party chairman from Lubbock County — the biggest population center in that 29-county district. Chris Winn, who helped Neugebauer and other Republicans get elected for four years, claims the incumbent has gone native after five terms in the House.

"There's a Washington Randy and a West Texas Randy, and they don't line up," he says in a steady stream of rhetoric perfected in those years talking up the party on the radio and TV and in front of crowds. "You can reform taxes and balance the budget if you get new members without the special-interest ties of people like him."

Neugebauer is the clear favorite, with the resources to advertise and organize; he has spent more than $650,000 since the beginning of April and had $956,767 in the bank two weeks ago. Winn has raised and spent less than $5,000, relying mainly on shoe leather, media attention and antipathy toward incumbents. He says he hears a lot of "throw them all out" and "we need term limits" from voters. Neugebauer touts his conservative voting record and rankings from Republican groups and has largely ignored the challenger.

Four candidates are vying for the Republican nomination for Hardcastle's open seat. None of them lives in either the Panhandle or the South Plains, and the geography of the district clearly reflects the shift in population from West Texas toward the east. The candidates are from the counties that have the most population, and though they're all living in North Texas, several have talked up their West Texas ties.

The race appears to be on its way to a July 31 runoff.

Hardcastle endorsed Trent McKnight, who lives in Throckmorton County. McKnight is the spender in that race, having gone through $234,600 through May 19, largely raised from his own loans to the campaign, which now total $245,000 (he's raised $52,600). Drew Springer of Muenster was next, at $46,800, followed by Paul Braswell of Forestburg and David Isbell of Valley View, who each raised less than $36,000.

Among the West Texas incumbents, Landtroop has the most serious challengers. He lost a House race in 2008, then won in 2010 and now is defending himself on new turf against a combination of experienced and inexperienced challengers. Former Rep. Gary Walker of Plains, who has managed two water districts in the area, has been knocking on doors and working the district for the last year. Ken King, a businessman and school board president from Canadian, and Mac Smith, a young lawyer from Pampa, round out the list.

As in the other state races, the issues are water and public education and, to a lesser extent, agriculture and energy, the economic engines of the region.

Landtroop, an insurance agent, hopes to win without a runoff but isn't sure that will happen. "Possible? Yes. Probable? I don't know," he says.

Walker thinks there will be a runoff, and isn't convinced Landtroop will be one of the two who makes it in.

Early voting in Hale County — Landtroop's home — has been anemic compared with turnout in Gray County — Smith's home — and Hockley County. It's anecdotal, but that low turnout at home can't help the incumbent.

King and Smith are spending the most. From January through May 19, King reported spending $347,000 and Smith spent $208,800. The incumbent spent $92,700 during that period; Walker spent $49,600. That's reflected in signage and on television throughout the district, and in the phone banks that have been pestering Republicans in the district since early voting began. All of the candidates are on the radio. Walker has ignored TV, which he calls expensive and inefficient.

He's old school about it and says the others are throwing away money. "A couple of those boys have got lots of money," he said. "I've walked lots of doors, and I haven't seen the support you would expect [for them] for all that.

"I guess I've saved $25,000 a month on consultants," he jokes. He doesn't have any.

Walker's guess on the last day of early voting is that there will be a runoff and that it will be between him and King. If it's not, he'd endorse King over Landtroop and thinks King would endorse him over Landtroop. But he hasn't done any polling and says that's purely based on feel.

"Politics ain't always fair," Walker said. "I'll have a watch party at my house and if people can't come, I tell them they can drive by. I'll have the flag up, and I'll run it at half-mast if I lose." 

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