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In Crowded Primaries, Names Can Be Everything

What's in a name? For some candidates in this week's primaries, including Jim Hogan and Malachi Boyuls, the answer may have been a few thousand votes.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, and Jim Malewitz, The Texas Tribune
Joe Cotten, Malachi Boyuls, and Kinky Friedman.

So a musician named “Kinky,” a well-known rancher named Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III and Jim Hogan walked into a primary, and the guy named Jim — just plain Jim — left with the most votes.

Such was the result of Tuesday’s Democratic primary for agriculture commissioner. Hogan, a dairy farmer and insurance agent who spent about $4,200 and had no campaign website, garnered 39 percent of the vote, advancing to a runoff against Richard “Kinky” Friedman, a former gubernatorial candidate and widely known author who spent about $6,000.

Hogan’s success, along with results in a few other races, provide a lesson for candidates in Texas’ down-ballot races: Names matter.

That’s at least how Hogan sees it. He said his normal-guy name played a major role in the race.

“Most people don’t know who anyone is,” Hogan told The Texas Tribune in December. “They either don’t vote at all — now, this is the primary — or they say ‘eenie, meenie, miney, mo,’ or they look at a name. They see Kinky Friedman and think, ‘That looks familiar. … Naw. Asa? Naw. Jim Hogan? I’ve heard of Hogan! Yeah, I think I’ll vote for him! He sounds like a nice guy!”

Hogan's no-name-to-known-name story amused observers of Texas politics, including someone who created a website "dedicated to help answer the question, who is Jim Hogan?" 

Texas has a storied tradition of folks who try to capitalize on their names. For instance, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a 2006 governor hopeful, had won previous races for Austin mayor, railroad commissioner and comptroller under different last names. She tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade election officials to add "Grandma” to her ballot listing, hoping it would help voters remember her “One Tough Grandma” campaign slogan.

This year, names may have also factored in other races, including the Republican race for agriculture commissioner.

The two most recognizable names in the race, former state Reps. Sid Miller and Tommy Merritt, will head to a runoff. But, surprisingly, Joe Cotten, a Dallas financial adviser who raised no campaign funds aside from a $10,000 loan to himself, trailed Republican state party attorney Eric Opiela by only 3 percent of the vote. And Cotten easily beat Uvalde Mayor J Allen Carnes, who had the backing of the Texas Farm Bureau and the family of former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe.

The name “Cotten” was no doubt a blessing for an agriculture-focused candidate, but Opiela has another theory. “It’s deeper than that,” he said. “There is a fairly famous restaurant in South Texas by the name of Joe Cotten’s Barbecue.”

In fact, the Robstown barbecue restaurant is named after the candidate Joe Cotten’s father and, by Cotten’s account, “put out an outstanding product for over 65 years.” But Cotten doesn’t attribute his surprising success to the restaurant's popularity. “It’s obvious I had a better message,” he said. “My voters want independence from big business, big ag and big government.”

Still, there may have been at least some effect. While Cotten lives in Dallas, his stronghold appeared to be in Nueces County, where the Robstown restaurant was located before burning down several years ago. Today, Cotten’s nephew runs another branch of the restaurant in that county, in Corpus Christi. In Tuesday’s election Cotten beat his competition in Nueces County with 36 percent of the vote, compared with Miller’s 29 percent. The same thing happened in Nueces County two years ago, when Cotten ran for railroad commissioner.

“It’s frustrating,” said Opiela, who put more than $1 million of his own money into the race and appeared in television ads in major media markets across the state. “We had a lot of contested races on the ballot, and it was very difficult for the voters to sort the wheat from the chaff, let’s just put it that way.”

In some instances, names might hurt a candidate’s chances. Consider the case of Malachi Boyuls and his occasionally mispronounced surname.

On Tuesday, the Republican candidate for the Railroad Commission received just 10 percent of the vote, the lowest total among four candidates — former state Rep. Wayne Christian, Ryan Sitton and Becky Berger. That’s despite the fact that Boyuls spent more than three times what Christian and Berger did combined.

Boyuls, an oil and gas investor, said he wasn’t sure whether his name doomed his campaign. He initially thought it might help.

“It is unique and it’s a book in the Bible, and with so many names on the ballot, I thought that it wouldn’t get lost on the ballot,” he said.

But Corbin Casteel, Boyuls’ campaign manager, was quick to point to “Malachi” when asked about what went wrong, saying the candidate would have needed to triple his contributions to overcome the obstacle.

Casteel said he realized that early on in the race. The campaign’s first video advertisement, in fact, featured Boyuls explaining the origin of his first name.

“Words have meaning and names have power,” its introduction read. 

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Politics 2014 elections