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Analysis: Runoffs Put Incumbents on the Brink

For political challengers, a runoff can be good news: They lived to fight another day. For incumbent officeholders, runoffs are fraught with the idea that voters are shopping for someone new.

From left to right: U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, SBOE member Pat Hardy, state Rep. Stefani Carter and state Sen. Bob Deuell.

It is way too early to write the political obituaries of David Dewhurst, Patricia Hardy, Ralph Hall, Bob Deuell and Stefani Carter. As far as anyone knows today, they will still be, respectively, the lieutenant governor, a State Board of Education member, a congressman, a state senator and a state representative at this time next year.

But it is safe, in each case, to ask this question: Is landing in a runoff ever a good sign for an incumbent seeking re-election?

“It’s a dangerous place to be, because primaries involving incumbents tend to be viewed as referendums on those incumbents,” said Eric Bearse, a Republican who is consulting candidates in a couple of runoffs, but none involving an incumbent. “If you don’t get to 50 percent, there is a natural coalition that can be built against you.”

That said, the incumbents have more than two months to recover. Primary runoffs used to follow elections by about five weeks. Starting in 2012, that gap was stretched to 12 weeks — enough time, Bearse said, for a candidate to get up, dust off and start over.

“All of the focus in the first round has been on the alleged flaws of the incumbent,” he said. “Now there is a chance for the incumbent to educate the voters on the flaws of the challenger.”

This year’s incumbent runoffs are all on Republican ballots. A handful of state races on the Democratic side are underway, but they are for seats either left open by an incumbent’s earlier loss or by an incumbent’s decision not to run for re-election.

“Obviously, this is a headache that we would have if we had more incumbents,” said James Aldrete, a Democratic consultant. “But it’s not our headache.”

One House race on the Democratic ballot features a former state representative, Norma Chávez of El Paso, against political newcomer Cesar Blanco, who finished well ahead on March 4. The loser was Naomi Gonzalez, who became a state representative two years ago by defeating Chávez — in a runoff. That became a referendum on the incumbent, and Chávez is now trying to win her way back to Austin.

The Republicans stuck in runoffs are there for different reasons, Aldrete said.

“They’re typically not being challenged by the next generation that just wants to move up — these are challenges from different factions within their party,” he said. “If the establishment guy is being challenged by a Tea Party candidate, that incumbent is in trouble.”

That describes Dewhurst, the state’s lieutenant governor since 2003. He finished second in his race for re-election and now faces state Sen. Dan Patrick, who finished first. Dewhurst would have to collect seven of every 10 votes that went to the third- and fourth-place finishers in order to defeat Patrick in the May 27 runoff. This isn’t the first time those voters have chosen another candidate over the lieutenant governor: After finishing first in the 2012 Republican primary for U.S. Senate, Dewhurst lost the runoff to Ted Cruz.

Hall, the dean of the Texas delegation to Congress, is still on the primary ballot for a different reason. The Rockwall Republican has been in Congress since 1981. He’s the oldest member of the U.S. House. And he has a problem familiar to longtime incumbents: A new generation is ready to serve.

Challenger John Ratcliffe made it into the runoff with the incumbent, though he trailed by more than 16 percentage points. Even if he loses this time, he’ll be positioned well for a race in two years; Hall has said that this will be the last time he runs.

In Carter’s case, the runoff is at least partly the fault of the incumbent. The Dallas Republican announced last year that she would not seek re-election, but would instead run for a spot on the Texas Railroad Commission. She changed her mind and got back into the House race, but found herself in a four-way race with three others who jumped at what they thought was an open seat. Carter will face former Dallas City Councilwoman Linda Koop in a runoff she might have avoided. The third-place finisher, Sam Brown, endorsed Koop.

And Hardy, an incumbent Republican on the State Board of Education, finds herself in a runoff with Eric Mahroum after coming within 0.4 percentage points of winning outright in the first round.

Top-of-the-ballot races get a lot of attention, but other races are a little sketchier; voters might have strong feelings about a race for governor but weaker impressions about candidates further down the ballot. If there is some solace for incumbents who are limping into the runoffs, it might be the calendar.

“It takes about three weeks for voters to forget who they voted for in some of these races,” Bearse said. “Now we’re talking 12 weeks.”

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Politics 2014 elections