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Analysis: Winning by Packing the Ballot

It should come as no surprise when political plotters and schemers try to pack a primary election to force an incumbent into a runoff. Their hope is that the runoff's greater concentration of partisan voters will be harder on the incumbents.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus listened to a Jan. 13, 2015, speech by a fellow member nominating him for another term as speaker.

*Correction appended.

Political hard-liners do better in runoffs than in party primaries.

Runoff voters in both parties are the most enthusiastic voters — more likely to show up for every election. Primary elections do a pretty good job of sorting the partisans from the semi-partisans: Most Republicans and most Democrats who vote in general elections do not vote in their own primaries. But the drop in turnout from those anemic primaries to the primary runoffs is also significant, leaving the most ardent voters from the two parties in charge.

So it should come as no surprise when political plotters and schemers try to pack a primary election to force an incumbent into a runoff. Their hope is that those more partisan voters will be harder on the incumbents than the regular voters in the primary.

There is talk of that strategy as this election cycle begins, with multiple challengers popping up in races against incumbents like House Speaker Joe Straus — a favorite target of the anti-establishment  wing of the Texas GOP. Straus has easily survived, both on the ballot and in the in-House elections for speaker, but his foes are still trying. They want to force him — and candidates like him in other districts around the state — into an election where a more conservative electorate is making the decisions.

The pack-the-primary strategy might seem far-fetched. Incumbents are hard to beat, and no particular trick works every time. But this one works often enough to turn heads: A Republican runoff election is what put Ted Cruz into the U.S. Senate and on the political arc that is inching him closer to center stage at the Republican presidential debates.

He got there the first time as the nobody in a nine-candidate primary that included an incumbent lieutenant governor, a former Dallas mayor and a former college and professional football player. When it came down to Cruz and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Cruz positioned himself as the more conservative of the two and the voters in a low-turnout midsummer runoff sent him to Washington, D.C., to antagonize the GOP establishment in Congress.

That was the exception: Incumbents win most of the time, no matter how many opponents they draw.

In the 2014 Republican primary, several Texas candidates got out of crowded GOP contests without runoffs: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn; U.S. Reps. Sam Johnson of Plano, Mac Thornberry of Clarendon, Randy Neugebauer of Lubbock, Lamar Smith of San Antonio and Michael Burgess of Flower Mound; and Gov. Greg Abbott and Comptroller Glenn Hegar (barely), to name a few.

Cornyn’s case was an extreme one, but one that makes the point about the power of incumbency: He won easily with 59.4 percent, even though seven other Republicans ran against him.

On the other hand, some incumbents were surprised to find themselves forced into runoffs and surprised again when the runoff voters sent them packing: U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall, Dewhurst and state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, were among those.

Others survived busy primaries. State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, had two opponents in 2014 and won the primary outright, with 58.6 percent of the vote. The strategy — if it was an intentional strategy in that election — also failed against state Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, who pulled 57.8 percent against two primary opponents.

And the runoff voters do not always follow the script when it comes to ideology. State Rep. Stefani Carter, R- Dallas, got forced into a runoff and lost to Linda Koop, a case where the more moderate candidate beat one touted as a more conservative one. The most conservative candidate in that primary — Adryana Boyne — finished fourth with only 4.7 percent.

The overwhelming majority of incumbents who faced challengers won their 2014 primaries. And most of the losers fell in the first round and not in runoffs, a group that included state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, and state Reps. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, Ralph Sheffield, R-Temple, Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, and Bennett Ratliff, R-Coppell.

Getting forced into a runoff is never never a good sign for an incumbent. Trying to push some of them into that situation by packing the ballot with challengers might turn out to be fruitful for the challengers. But falling short can play in favor of the incumbent: Does anybody really think John Cornyn looked weaker after beating seven Republican opponents in 2014? 

Correction: The number of candidates in the 2012 GOP primary for U.S. Senate  has been corrected. There were nine.

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Politics 2016 elections Joe Straus John Cornyn Texas House of Representatives Texas Senate