With five Republicans fighting for the chance to seek the open state Senate seat vacated by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, one thing is almost certain: a May runoff.
The swing district, which covers parts of Fort Worth, Arlington and Forest Hill, was under Republican control for years before Davis narrowly defeated incumbent state Sen. Kim Brimer in 2008. Davis held onto the seat in 2012, defeating former state Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, by about 6,500 votes.
Shelton is among the five Republicans now looking to win the seat back for the GOP. The other four include Tea Party activist Konni Burton; Tony Pompa, a trustee on the Arlington Independent School District board; Mark Skinner, who owns a commercial real estate business; and Colleyville chiropractor Jon Schweitzer. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two Republican vote-getters will face off in late May.
Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said expectations for runoffs in many of the top statewide races reflect a "musical chairs kind of scramble" that began when Davis and Attorney General Greg Abbott announced they would be running for governor.
This Senate race is being closely watched. Without it, if all the Senate's other seats remain unchanged, Democrats will only hold 11 seats in upper chamber, bringing Republicans within one seat of the two-thirds majority needed to bring legislation to the floor for a vote.
All five GOP candidates said they recognized how crucial the seat is to the Republican Party, and all but Shelton seemed convinced they'd be headed for a runoff. "I am the only candidate in this race with experience in the community, business and the Legislature," he said.
Pompa suggested the heightened attention on the race was the result of the open seat — not merely what flipping it could mean for Republicans in the Senate.
“As far as how many people are running, the kind of support we’re getting and the kind of voter turnout, it’s all been the fact that there’s five candidates in a race," he said.
Burton, who was the first candidate to enter the race, and who has received one of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's rare endorsements, said the crowded primary field shows that Republicans want to “make sure we win this race with a conservative” to propel the party to victory in November.
Schweitzer said a hard-fought Republican primary partially reflected the pressure both parties were feeling about the fight for the seat, and added that the GOP needed a strong conservative candidate to avoid a "knockout."
On the Democratic side, Fort Worth community leader Libby Willis and businessman Mike Martinez entered the race in November to try to keep the seat under their party’s control. They were joined by former Colleyville City Council Member George Boll before he dropped out in December. Five former Tarrant County Democratic Party chairs had called on Boll to abandon the race after it was reported that he had previously voted in GOP primaries.
Willis, the daughter-in-law of former state lawmaker Doyle Willis, is the former president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods. Martinez is a founder of Edge Resources, an oil and gas operator in Fort Worth.
Two Libertarians, Gene Lord and Gene Woodward III, are also running.