As political contrasts crop up in the Houston mayoral race, one campaign is not letting the other forget an apparent endorsement from the highest-profile Republican in Texas: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
A week before voters in Cruz's hometown sent state Rep. Sylvester Turner and former Kemah Mayor Bill King to the Dec. 12 runoff, King revealed in a since-deleted tweet that Cruz had voted for him — and said it was an "honor" to have the conservative firebrand on his side.
Now the campaign of Turner, a longtime Democrat, is planning to draw attention to the Cruz factor as it sharpens his differences with King, a Republican-leaning businessman. Turner's team got its start Sunday with a tweet linking Cruz to King, calling them both "too extreme for Houston."
"Ted Cruz is one of the most divisive members of Congress, who is willing to shut down our government when he doesn’t get his way. And Bill King tweeted that it was an ‘honor’ to receive Cruz’s vote," Turner spokeswoman Sue Davis said in a statement later Sunday.
"King ... has now deleted that tweet. But he can’t delete the truth. One of the principal differences between Sylvester Turner and Bill King is that Rep. Turner has a long history of bringing people together; King’s ‘honored’ friend does the opposite."
On Monday, King's campaign countered that Turner was trying to make the race "as partisan as possible" by bringing up Cruz. The businessman is already seeking to paint Turner as a "career politician" who would keep the city on a fiscally unsustainable path.
The dustup over Cruz's support could have implications in a nonpartisan race in which both hopefuls are presenting themselves as unifying figures whose candidacies transcend party lines. They nonetheless bring their own political affiliations to the contest: Turner has been a Democrat throughout his 26-year tenure in the Texas House, while King, who describes himself as an independent, was able to assemble a GOP-leaning coalition last week that helped him advance to the second round.
The tweet followed an interaction King and Cruz had at an early voting site in Houston a day before the senator left the city, where his campaign is based, for the third GOP presidential debate in Boulder, Colo. King's campaign said the tweet went out after King offhandedly mentioned the encounter in an interview.
".@tedcruz great bumping into you at Wast Gray Voting station. What an honor to have you punch support for Bill King on your ticket! BK" read the tweet, which was posted at 7:17 p.m. Oct. 27 and gone by the end of the hour.
Asked two days later in Iowa whether he voted for King, Cruz did not immediately respond to a reporter. He later said through a representative that he is "not getting involved in local races."
On Monday, King's campaign said the tweet was deleted because King thought it was inappropriate to publicize Cruz's vote without his permission. At the same time, the King campaign emphasized the support he has from across the ideological spectrum, ranging from his campaign treasurer and finance chairman — both lifelong Democrats — to conservative backers such as state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston and the C Club of Houston.
"Sylvester Turner wants to make the election as partisan as possible because he has no solution to Houston’s serious problems other than raising property taxes and kicking the can down the road on the city’s looming pension and infrastructure crisis," King spokesman Jim McGrath said in a statement Monday.
"A more relevant question than who Sen. Cruz voted for is: What is Sylvester Turner’s plan to solve the pension crisis? After 26 years in Austin and 60+ mayoral debates and forums, he has offered none. Is he going to tell Houstonians what he plans to do about the most serious problem the City is facing before the election?"
King has made pension reform central to his bid for City Hall, most vocally proposing a transition from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans. Turner advocates "working with all stakeholders to reach common ground" in tackling the city's $3.2 billion in unfunded liabilities.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said the introduction of Cruz into the runoff could hold peril for Turner, who is thought to have built-in advantages in demographics and turnout.
"One downside to this is that if you activate Republicans by making this a clearly partisan race, then you run the risk of making people vote who otherwise would note vote," said Rottinghaus, who noted GOP voters in the Democratic-leaning city proved to be a potent force in the Nov. 3 election when they had a rallying point in Houston's nondiscrimination ordinance.
While Cruz and King have known each for years, the two arguably represent different wings of the GOP. King has billed himself as "unapologetically moderate" — the title of a book he wrote last year — while Cruz has staked his political identity on an unyielding brand of conservatism.
When King was a columnist for the Houston Chronicle, he expressed concern that Cruz's involvement in the 2013 government shutdown could hurt Republicans' chances of future electoral gains. King playfully concluded in an Oct. 16, 2013, column that Cruz is "actually a Democratic Manchurian candidate sent into the ranks of the Republican Party to blow himself up, taking as many Republicans bystanders with him as possible."
Disclosure: The University of Houston is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.