In December, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold drew national attention when, in the middle of a sexual harassment scandal, he announced he was not running for another term. Yet the race to replace the Corpus Christi Republican has been one of the state's most under-the-radar contests.
That was, in part, because many have assumed Bech Bruun, the former Texas Water Board Commission chairman and most prominent candidate in the 6-way Republican primary, was a safe bet to take over the seat.
But last month, Bruun just narrowly placed first in the March 6 primary with 36 percent of the vote. Close behind him was former Victoria County GOP Chairman Michael Cloud at 34 percent.
That margin surprised more than a few political insiders in the state, who assumed Bruun, who has ties to the state's GOP leadership and has racked up a string of prominent endorsements, would either avoid a runoff entirely or come much closer than he did to drawing the majority support needed to do so.
But Cloud is putting up a tenacious fight that is leaving more than a few Texas political insiders less sure of who might win the GOP nomination in the May 22nd runoff.
Bruun remains upbeat about the race a little less than two months out.
"Overall, it was not unexpected for us to be in the runoff," he said. "We did expect to be the lead vote-getter, and we are happy about that, but we are now moving forward with our runoff plan which we've had ready to go and we're setting forth on."
Bruun previously held jobs under then-Gov. Rick Perry and state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, before becoming a member of the state’s water development board in 2013. He was later tapped by Abbott in 2015 to chair the board. He has big endorsements and has far outpaced Cloud in fundraising. But Cloud had a different advantage: time.
Cloud, a current member of the State Republican Executive Committee, had been running for the seat since early October, two months before Farenthold announced his retirement. And Bruun said that while he decided to run after Hurricane Harvey hit the region in late August, he held off from announcing his run for Congress until December, when his time at the water board was winding down.
Cloud did not respond to interview requests from the Tribune.
Cloud is running as "a constitutional conservative," with an emphasis on border security and scaling back the power of the federal government. And he argued in remarks in Port Lavaca in February that his early bid suggests an added layer of sincerity in his campaign.
"If you followed the race, we got involved back in October," he said. "The landscape was completely different, and then news happened that shifted the race. That news happened a week before the filing deadline."
He then implicitly criticized the other candidates who entered the race in that time period, including Bruun.
"We got in the race because I looked at what was happening in our nation, and I felt like we needed something to happen," he added. "And I felt like we needed to send people who had the courage, who had the conviction to stand up to a culture of corruption in Washington, D.C. So that's what got me into this race, that was the message from the beginning."
The territory Bruun and Cloud are fighting over is solidly Republican – both Farenthold and Trump carried the 27th District by a 24-point margin in 2016. Encompassing a solid slab of the Gulf Coast, the district extends so far into the state that it takes in the outskirts of Austin.
The runoff essentially pits the district’s two population centers – Corpus Christi and Victoria – against each other. Bruun grew up in Corpus Christi and lives in nearby Rockport, while Cloud has spent much of his adult life in Victoria.
Bruun is a known figure in state politics and touts endorsements from Perry, Railroad Commission Chairman Christi Craddick, state Reps. Dennis Bonnen of Angleton and John Cyrier of Lockhart, and Corpus Christi Mayor Joe McComb.
Bruun has also had a financial advantage. As of his last campaign finance report from mid-February, he had raised about $272,000 and spent $188,000. Cloud had raised about $83,000 and spent about $70,000. Bruun told the Tribune that he had closed in on $325,000 in donations by the March 6 primary.
But Cloud had clearly built a following with his head start. He also has the endorsements of former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, one of the country’s most prominent libertarian-leaning politicians; David Barton, an influential evangelical activist and author; and the four Republican candidates who did not make the runoff.
Farenthold, the scandal-tarred incumbent, has not endorsed in the race and neither candidate appears to be pursuing his support.
While the congressional race is a hot topic in the district, the most dominant concern is the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
The town of Rockport received the brunt of the storm and the aftermath continues to wreak havoc on the tourism industry up and down Coastal Bend communities.
But this is also a heavy agricultural region and Corpus Christi is a major shipping point in state – two other industries negatively impacted by the storm. Bruun said it was Harvey that spurred his run, not the blow up of Farenthold's political troubles as Cloud implied on the trail.
"It really was Hurricane Harvey that I'd say tipped the scale over to us deciding that this was truly the point in time that the Coastal Bend and the district needed some true, experienced, effective representation in D.C.," Bruun said of his decision to run.
But the need for federal funding in helping the region recover from the storm has created its own political conundrum, as both Cloud and Bruun are running to the right on fiscal issues.
The biggest tranche of federal Harvey aid so far came attached to a massive budget bill that President Donald Trump signed in February, a measure that made fiscal conservatives squirm. Even so, a number of Republicans in the Texas delegation swallowed a bitter pill by supporting the measure because of the hurricane aid.
When asked on if he would have supported that bill, Bruun was affirmative. In an emailed statement, he pointed out that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, voted for it despite his own concerns about other spending in the bill.
"So I would have agreed with our Senator on this bill and voted 'Yea' because my home district needs the disaster aid funding and I have made a promise to put constituents in CD-27 first," Bruun said.
Cloud's campaign did not respond to questions about the spending bill.
As for the runoff ahead, several unaligned GOP observers say this race remains Bruun's to lose – but not with a great deal of confidence. All across the state and in both parties, congressional candidates with financial and structural advantages came up short. Consultants are still scratching their heads on why that was so.
And there is another potential game-changer Texas political observers are watching for in the weeks ahead: Will the Club for Growth get involved?
The national conservative group has proven to be lethally effective in Republican primaries in the past, both through its super PAC arm and in its ability to rally its donors behind a candidate. If the group decides to enter the race and back Cloud, all bets and predictions are off.
The May 22 runoff will be preceded by a week of early voting from May 14-18. Four Democrats also filed for the seat. Two of them, Roy Barrera and Eric Holguin, are now in their own runoff.
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