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Analysis: A Good Election Night to Be an Incumbent

For all of the talk and bluster about replacing the people in government with new folks, Texas voters on Tuesday were remarkably gentle with incumbents, giving nearly all of them a ticket to the general election in November.

Supporters wait for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz to take the stage at the Redneck Country Club in Stafford, Texas on the evening of the Texas primary on Mar. 1, 2016.

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The status quo in Texas politics had a super Super Tuesday.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — a hell-raiser, but a Texas hell-raiser — beat the hell-raiser from New York. Cruz ran as an outsider for Senate four years ago but now is positioning himself as the Republican establishment’s last hope to beat Donald Trump.

No congressional incumbent who wanted another term was defeated, in spite of some pre-election hype that probably helped raise some money and might have spurred some Texans to vote.

Three incumbents seeking re-election to the Texas Supreme Court held their ground against serious challengers. Two judges on the state’s highest criminal court emerged from their primaries unscathed.

No state senator who sought another term was defeated. Those races weren’t even close.

Only four incumbents in the 150-member Texas House lost their seats. Three more will live or die, politically speaking, in May runoffs.

All in all, it was almost boring. For incumbents, boring is good.

Imagine the alternative. In the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 67 percent of Texas voters said they have an unfavorable view of Congress, while an anemic 12 percent said the legislators in Washington are doing good work. They passed on the chance to do something about it, however, opting instead to send their current representatives back to D.C.

Many members of Congress drew challengers this year, but some were thought to be in real danger by the genius pundits and political operatives. Look at how they did: John Culberson, R-Houston, 57.3 percent; Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, 53.4 percent; Gene Green, D-Houston, 57.4 percent; and Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, 61.4 percent.

It wasn’t just Congress. Republican state Reps. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington, Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, John Frullo of Lubbock and John Raney of College Station were all on the fret board. So was state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. None of them got scratched. Maybe they were running hard out of fear. Something worked — just look at the numbers: 58.3 percent, 58.1 percent, 58.2 percent, 55.2 percent, 68.8 percent and 59.2 percent, respectively.

That’s a good night for the ruling class.

Two Supreme Court justices — Paul Green and Debra Lehrmann — won with just more than 52 percent of the votes in their races. That’s close, but it’s not squeaker territory.

Several open seats up and down the ballot each attracted several candidates — not unusual when there is no incumbent blocking entry to a particular office. Some of those will go to runoffs, like the two open seats on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the open chair at the Texas Railroad Commission.

In all, 18 races are now teed up for one primary runoff or another in May. Three of those — all Texas House seats — involve incumbents. Pushing an incumbent into a runoff is the next best thing to beating one outright. For what it’s worth, everybody now has evidence of weakness from Reps. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, Doug Miller, R-New Braunfels, and Wayne Smith, R-Baytown. Smith had the toughest night, finishing second in his re-election race.

Among the officeholders on the ballot, the night’s only out-and-out losers all came from the Texas House: Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown; Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball; Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman; and Molly White, R-Temple.

Several of their colleagues barely won, but the only difference between winning easy and winning hard is an ounce or two of stomach acid. Reps. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, and Dan Flynn, R-Van, each got less than 51 percent of the vote. But it only takes 50.

Cook chairs the House State Affairs Committee. Flynn chairs the Pension Committee. They are part of the Texas House’s management and were targeted for that by a faction that wants control of the House.

The only legislator with a bigger electoral target on his back was House Speaker Joe Straus, who faced two challengers, one with money, and who spent more than $3 million defending himself in San Antonio’s Republican primary. Even his people were worried.

Straus got out alive, with 60.2 percent. The noisy opponent who scared everyone so badly got 28.2 percent.

It just wasn’t an election for challengers.

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Politics 2016 elections Texas House of Representatives Texas Senate