"Trial-lawyer backed" is a label ready-made for Republicans’ attack ads in tort reform-happy Texas. But if the 2012 primaries are any guide, the plaintiffs’ bar is becoming less shy about investing in the Republican side of the ballot — and Republican candidates are not being bashful about accepting the money.
The jury is still out on whether the stigma about trial lawyers is fading for Republican voters.
Steve Mostyn, a past president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association who has contributed millions to largely Democratic causes, gave hundreds of thousands to three Republican state Senate contests this election cycle. Texans for Insurance Reform — a political action committee to which the Houston personal injury lawyer is the largest donor — followed suit.
The effort is trial lawyers’ largest foray into Republican primary races in the past decade, and results have been mixed. Two of the state Senate candidates Mostyn and TIR heavily backed, Rep. Todd Smith of Euless and Dave Norman, lost handily to opponents who received money from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the state’s largest and richest tort reform group.
“For every vote you might get by spending the money, you lose one as well,” because of its source, said Rep. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, who defeated Smith by 30 percentage points.
Smith, a Fort Worth personal injury lawyer, had received nearly $450,000 from TIR by May 20. Hancock had taken in about $50,000 less from tort reform advocates.
In Norman’s matchup against Rep. Larry Taylor. R-Friendswood, Mostyn spent $275,000 of his own money on behalf of Norman, a Seabrook insurance agent; TIR gave $368,000. A third group backed by trial lawyers, the Conservative Voters of Texas, run by Mark McCaig, a former State Republican Executive Committee member and an associate in Mostyn’s law firm, invested another $228,000. TLR and supporters Bob and Doylene Perry gave more than $900,000 to Taylor’s campaign.
McCaig said that to begin with, both of those races were “uphill battles.” Much of the trial lawyers’ investment, he said, came as an attempt to give the candidates “a fighting chance.”
“Being able to decrease the influence of a powerful group like TLR is not going to happen overnight,” he said.
Sherry Sylvester, a TLR spokeswoman, said that McCaig’s group was “deceptive” and that the losses by candidates backed by trial lawyers sent a clear signal. “A message that’s paid for by trial lawyers, no matter how much money is behind it, is not going to persuade conservative Republican voters,” Sylvester said.
But trial lawyers did have one bright spot on Tuesday. That came in a third senate race, with the dispatch of the former Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, who as of April 30 had received more than $700,000 from TLR since December plus an additional $100,000 from Bob and Doylene Perry. Her opponent, Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, got more than $640,000 from the TIR PAC and will face a runoff with Donna Campbell, once considered the long-shot candidate, in July.
Wentworth shrugged off the notion that trial lawyer money might be a liability in a Republican primary, saying the outcome of his race “speaks for itself.” He said he supported lawsuit reform but that he has opposed the tort reform group when he thought it had behaved dishonestly in negotiations.
“That kind of independence really aggravates them,” he said. “When they say jump they want me and every other member of the Legislature to say how high.”