Special Election for Texas Senate Seat Turns Nasty

The following story originally appeared on The Quorum Report.

BRENHAM – The mad dash to succeed Comptroller-Elect Glenn Hegar in the Texas Senate has turned quite negative in the final days leading up to this Saturday’s special election. The perceived frontrunner, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, has sought to create a sense of inevitability through high-profile endorsements and has focused her message on border security.

But a well-funded Republican rival, Rosenberg businessman Gary Gates, is working hard to turn illegal immigration into Kolkhorst’s worst issue and has touted the endorsement of former Congressman Ron Paul as a way to say he’s the “true conservative." There are three other candidates, but none of them have campaigned for as long or spent nearly as much money as Kolkhorst and Gates.

And yes, there are serious dollars in play. Gates, so far, has spent $1.7 million to Kolkhorst’s roughly $915,000.

Hegar resigned his Senate seat about three weeks ago, on the last possible day he could do so in order to trigger an expedited special election. He’s trying to hand off the seat to Kolkhorst, a rural lawmaker who somehow has the blessing of the Republican establishment, some Tea Party figures, and a major newspaper editorial board. Hegar faced Gates years ago in a nasty GOP nomination fight for this Senate seat, so there’s little doubt that bad blood exists between the two to this day.

The stars seem to have aligned for Kolkhorst in a way that’s truly remarkable, according to some veteran Texas Capitol observers. To underscore their point, how often do you hear Midland oilman Tim Dunn’s spokesman Michael Quinn Sullivan agree with the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board? Well, in this case they agree Kolkhorst should be elected to the Texas Senate.

Kolkhorst has almost exclusively kept the campaign positive, pointing to her endorsements from Governor-Elect Greg Abbott, outgoing Governor Rick Perry, Sen. Hegar himself, and others. She’s also portrayed her time in The Legislature as "Proven, conservative leadership" that "voters will respond to."

There is some evidence, however, that Gates’ attacks on Kolkhorst may be giving her campaign consultant Luke Macias some heartburn. Macias, always a cheerful warrior, laughed that off. "We anticipated that they would make this about a mudslinging fight," Macias said. "We haven’t gone down that road.”

Gates has blanketed Senate District 18 with daily mail pieces, television ads, and a radio ad calling Kolkhorst a “liberal.” He’s also launched an attack website to highlight – among other things – Kolkhorst’s vote over a decade ago to approve in-state tuition for undocumented students. That policy has hung like an albatross from the necks of Texas Republican candidates in recent cycles – from Gov. Perry on the presidential campaign trail to outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples in his failed bid for Lt. Governor.

Late last week, Kolkhorst’s campaign returned fire with a mailer of their own, which you can see here. The mail piece said Gates is “ALREADY SLINGING MUD” even though “the special election has just been called.” It also touts various votes Kolkhorst has taken on illegal immigration – the issue that most inflames the GOP base – including a measure to “crack down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants.”

Gates said he is in no way “slinging mud.”

“All I had done is point out some issues that she's voted on that separate the two of us," Gates told Quorum Report. "She's had 14 years to try to change her stance on in-state tuition," he said. Gates said one of his sons had to pay out-of-state rates when he attended college because he’d lived outside Texas for a time. “He grew up right here in Ft. Bend County,” Gates said. “That’s not right.”

When asked what he thinks of establishment figures joining with groups like Empower Texans in endorsing Kolkhorst, Gates said “That's the team of Michael Sullivan trying to control certain people. I would go up to Austin free of their shackles." Gates added that he’s been a donor to the group run by Sullivan, “so, that’s kind of frustrating.”

As a wealthy businessman, Gates has been able to self-finance and put together what appears to be a formidable campaign operation not unlike the one that helped Senator-Elect Don Huffines unseat Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, in this year’s GOP primary.

Gates said his crew includes general consultant Joe Williams of Houston, Murphy Nasica on the ground game, mailhouse operator Spencer Neumann and Harris Media doing digital work. That last one is the same company that handled digital media for Sen. Ted Cruz and Lt. Governor-Elect Dan Patrick. Rising Tide Media, a DC-based firm, is producing Gates’ television and radio advertisements.

The timing of the election presents a big problem for the candidates as they work to turn out their supporters.

Though the seat didn’t officially become open until about three weeks ago, Kolkhorst and Gates have been campaigning in earnest for about 6 months. That’s why some voters say they actually thought they had made their choice in this race when they voted straight-ticket in the November general election. Turnout was abysmal for that Election Day, which voters supposedly knew about. It is anyone’s guess as to who exactly will turn out for a Dec. 6 special election.

Geography is also certainly a challenge for both Kolkhorst and Gates as they each try to crack 50 percent and avoid a runoff. The district encompasses the Brenham area, runs all the way to the Houston suburbs of Katy and Sugar Land, down to the coast in the Corpus Christi area and over to the west of Victoria and Gonzales.

That geography gives extra significance to Ron Paul's endorsement of Gates.

“A lot of that is Ron Paul country,” as one observer put it. “Those people loved Ron Paul before America knew who Ron Paul was.” Gates is said to have been using Paul’s lists to find voters in those counties that were once represented by Paul in Congress.

Brenham, Kolkhorst’s hometown, is sparsely populated compared to vote-rich Ft. Bend County, where Gates lives. But as of Monday, the Brenham area had out-voted all of Ft. Bend in this contest, consultant Macias said.

The other Republican candidate, Charles Gregory III, is a businessman and attorney who has said he would follow in Hegar’s footsteps in prioritizing water, health care, border security, and taxes. "The Senate dropped the ball on water," Gregory told The Victoria Advocate. Gregory said lawmakers in Austin won’t’ truly address infrastructure investment if they don’t do the work in the Capitol instead of punting to the voters by offering ballot propositions. "Sooner or later," Gregory said, “the propositions are going to run the state out of money." Gregory has spent only about $40,000 on the race.

The Democrats are not expected to be much of a factor, other than maybe peeling off a sufficient amount of votes to help force a runoff among two of the Republicans. After all, this is a district that in 2012 went for Mitt Romney over President Obama 67 – 31 percent. The Democrats in the contest are Cynthia Drabek, who previously ran unsuccessfully for a House seat and Christian E. Hawkins.

Copyright December 02, 2014, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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