When voters head to the polls starting Tuesday to cast an early ballot to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, in Texas’ 19th Congressional District, they’ll have a dizzyingly large field of candidates to choose from.
There are eight hopefuls in the race for one of the safest Republicans seats in the state (Mitt Romney won 74 percent of the vote here in the 2012 presidential campaign). Political insiders can't say for sure which candidates will advance from the March 1 primary to the almost certain May 24 runoff, but the safe money is on two of the three in the top tier: former Texas Tech Vice Chancellor Jodey Arrington, Lubbock Mayor Glen Robertson and retired Air Force Col. Michael Bob Starr.
The remaining candidates are bank president Greg Garrett and surgeon Donald R. May, who are self-funding and have made some professional internal hires, and three with less cash and a slimmer organization behind their bids: farmer Jason Corley, veterinarian John C. Key and health care administrator DeRenda Warren.
So far, Robertson has the best-financed effort. He raised $557,000 in 2015, mostly in the form of loans he made to his campaign, and much of the $445,000 he's spent to date has gone for polling and a steady advertising presence on Fox News. The blitz only increases his already healthy name identification from his tenure as mayor of the district's largest city.
Arrington, also from Lubbock, is running a conventional congressional campaign fueled by hundreds of donations — many from old allies during his time working for George W. Bush, both in Texas and in Washington, D.C. By the end of 2015, he had raised $281,000 and had spent $90,000. He previously ran for state senate in a 2012 special election, not only losing to current incumbent Charles Perry but failing even to make the runoff.
Then there's Starr, who hails from Abilene. A mix of donations and his own money fueled his efforts through the end of 2015: He had raised $156,000, including $25,000 he loaned to his campaign, and had spent $26,000. But what could benefit him most is if the top two Lubbock candidates split the regional vote and he consolidates his hometown.
Lubbock is the dominant city in the 19th, with a population of 240,000, compared to Abilene’s 120,000. The prospect of losing a hometown congressman is the source of anxiety in Hub City, where race-watchers are looking ahead to the redistricting process in 2021. Some worry an Abilene-based representative could leave Lubbock vulnerable. Even though the state legislature draws the federal maps, incumbents have been known to convey their preferences for district lines.
To the north of CD-19 is U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry’s 13th Congressional District, which encompasses most of the Panhandle but excludes Lubbock. It stretches for nearly 500 miles to the east, all the way to the Fort Worth exurbs. A mapmaker could decide to pull Lubbock into the Thornberry seat and draw a new version of the 19th around Abilene as a population center.
Neugebauer, the outgoing incumbent, told the Tribune in September he had no intention to endorse, but speculation abounds that either the congressman or his son, energy investor Toby Neugebauer, may quietly put a thumb on the scale. The latter is an emerging force in politics, having caught the eye of political observers earlier this year with a $10 million donation to a super PAC backing U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign.
Also an unresolved question: whether the race will become nationalized in a presidential election year, attracting the attention of so-called outside money groups. As it is difficult to oust incumbent federal officials, open-seat races in heavily Republican districts have become consistent battlegrounds between establishment Republicans and Tea Party activists.
The biggest player in this world is the Club for Growth, which advocates for limited government and has a super PAC arm and a vast network if donors who give directly to individual campaigns. For now, the Club is not entering the fray.
“We’re watching the race,” said spokesman Doug Sachtleben.
That was the same stance the Club took in 2014, when attorney John Ratcliffe challenged former U.S. Rep. Ralph M. Hall in Congressional District 4. But once Ratcliffe forced the race into a runoff, the Club endorsed him and turned its fire on the incumbent.