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For Democrats, a Familiar Name and Tempered Optimism in AG Race

Democrats have big hopes for an attorney general candidate named Sam Houston. They believe his Republican opponent, Ken Paxton, is vulnerable. Paxton’s supporters say Democrats have little cause for optimism.

Democratic nominee for Attorney General, Sam Houston, addresses delegates on the final day of the  2014 Texas Democratic Convention held at the Dallas Convention Center in Dallas, Texas,  June 28, 2014.

Sam Houston, the first president of the Republic of Texas, has already staked his claim to the state’s history books. This year, a man by the same name is hoping to make a little Texas history of his own.

Sam Houston, the little-known Democratic nominee for Texas attorney general, has so far run a modest campaign. Houston, a lawyer with West Texas roots and a thick drawl, drives his family car to campaign events and usually opts for an open shirt with his navy blue blazer. He has never held public office, and at last tally he had raised a mere fraction of the campaign cash of his Republican opponent, state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney.

But Democrats, who have not held a statewide office in deep red Texas since 1998, are not discounting Houston. They believe that Paxton is vulnerable because of ethical problems. Paxton easily won the Republican runoff in May despite reports that he had violated state securities law. The Texas State Securities Board fined Paxton $1,000 for acting as the unregistered representative of an investment adviser.

Paxton’s supporters say Democrats have little cause for optimism. A Tea Party favorite buoyed by some well-publicized praise from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Paxton crushed his runoff opponent by 27 percentage points in May, despite a bruising race in which the candidates spent more than $2 million on television ads.

"Over the last decade Sen. Paxton has exceeded expectations of political prognosticators in elections for state representative, state senator and two statewide contests," a spokesman for his campaign, Anthony Holm, said. "This success is certain to continue in November."

In an interview recently at his Houston home, Houston acknowledged his underdog status but said he is not concerned.

“I don’t worry about money,” he said. “Some candidates get a bus. We’ve got that Prius out there. I’ll raise enough funds.”

Republican political consultants are skeptical.

“At the end of the day, you might have something negative to say about your opponent, but if no one hears it, it’s like a tree falling in the forest,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican political consultant not affiliated with Paxton’s campaign. A “first-rate, truly competitive” race for attorney general will cost $5 million to $10 million, he added. In January, the last time he was required to disclose his campaign finances, Houston had raised about $185,000.

In a 10-minute address last week at his party’s convention, Houston did not throw any new punches at Paxton but echoed some of the attacks that had surfaced in the primary. “Republicans have said that his ethical violations may be a crime, that he might be prosecuted by the federal government and he may be disbarred,” Houston said. “I don’t know that, but I’ll let them say it.”

Paxton’s supporters say suggestions that he could face criminal prosecution are liberal pipe dreams. Holm has said the matter is “closed” and “fully resolved” by the securities board.

Under state securities law, local prosecutors may pursue criminal charges in cases involving failure to register as an investment adviser. Representatives from the district attorney’s office in Collin County, Paxton’s home county, say they have not received any referrals from the securities board.

“The truth of the matter with the Paxton stuff is, we’re in pretty uncharted waters,” said Jeff Rotkoff, a Democratic adviser unaffiliated with Houston’s campaign. “Anybody who’s going to talk about it is going to be speculating.”

That has not stopped Democrats from talking.

Some have wondered aloud whether District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg of Travis County, a Democrat, might have jurisdiction in the case because her office oversees the state’s Public Integrity Unit, which investigates malfeasance among elected officials. That theory has not been substantiated.  

One Democratic consultant, Matt Angle, emailed supporters on Monday to say he was looking into speculation that Republicans “may be urging” the Public Integrity Unit to prosecute Paxton. Gregg Cox, the unit’s director, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Houston’s supporters are optimistic nonetheless. They say he has experience on the campaign trail — he ran for the Texas Supreme Court in 2008 — and has a familiar name. “He could well end up being the top vote-getter for Texas Democrats,” said Harold Cook, a Democratic consultant not affiliated with Houston’s campaign.

It would not be the first time. Houston’s 2008 bid was the most competitive among Texas Democrats in statewide races; he ultimately lost with 46 percent of the vote. The only Democrat to receive more votes that year was Barack Obama.

Houston’s fate will probably be decided by the top of his ticket. Cook recalled the 2002 election, when Kirk Watson, a Democrat and now a state senator from Austin, unsuccessfully challenged Greg Abbott, a Republican, in the race for attorney general.

“Voters had decided they didn’t like Democrats that year,” Cook said, “starting with Tony Sanchez,” that year’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Since then, no Democrat running for Texas attorney general has earned even 40 percent of the vote.

“The attorney general’s race is a very difficult race because typically it doesn’t get as much coverage as the races like lieutenant governor and governor,” Watson said. “Sometimes that makes it hard to even raise money, because it’s not the premier race.”

It is an obstacle all down-ballot candidates face, especially in the minority party. That has prompted at least one lesser-known Democratic candidate, Jim Hogan, the agriculture commissioner hopeful, to forego fundraising and run on his name alone. Hogan, who did not attend the Texas Democratic Party convention, has said his name makes him sound “like a nice guy.” In the Democratic primary, he beat out another candidate with a recognizable name: the musician and frequent political candidate Kinky Friedman.

Houston bristles at any suggestion that he is running on his moniker. “I try not to be so cynical to think that people just go in and vote for a name,” he said.

And though the name Sam Houston may be memorable at the ballot box, he added, it also has its drawbacks.

“You can’t get a clean Google page with just me on it,” Houston said. “I’ve tried.”

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Politics Attorney General's Office Greg Abbott Ken Paxton Ted Cruz