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Runoff watch: Legislative races

I’m going to spend a few posts looking at the runoff elections that will be on the ballot this May. Primary runoffs are completely different than regular primaries, mostly because the races involved are low profile and only the hardest of hardcore voters come out for them. Remember how much time we spent this primary cycle talking about the 2008 Democratic primary and how off-the-charts high the turnout was? Well, turnout for the 2008 Democratic primary runoff in Harris County, which decided one District Judge nomination and one Justice of the Peace nomination, as well as voting on the nomination for Railroad Commissioner, drew all of 9,670 votes. Republican primary runoff turnout that year was 40,457, considerably higher but still quite paltry. The exception to this rule is when there is an actual high-profile race on the ballot, such as in 2012 when Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst went into overtime for the US Senate nomination. That year, in a runoff that happened in July, over 135,000 people came out to vote. The Democratic runoff, which also included a Senate race, drew 30,000 votes. Point being: Don’t expect much this year.

The bottom line is that there are two types of primary runoff voters: Those who are super plugged into the process and who turn out any time there’s an election, and those who are brought out by a campaign. In the absence of a high-profile campaign, the kind that draws news coverage and maybe TV advertising, the main kind of campaign that will draw out voters is one with a ground game. Legislative races are the best for that. There are three legislative runoffs of interest, two in Harris County and one in Fort Bend.

HD128 – Republican runoff

Rep. Wayne Smith

I don’t pay that much attention to most Republican primary races, and even if I did I doubt I’d have given this one much thought. Rep. Wayne Smith in HD128 is a low-key guy, serving as the Chair of the Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee and generally not doing much to attract my attention. He hadn’t had a competitive primary since he was first elected in 2002, and hadn’t had a non-third party opponent since 2004. Yet there he was on Election Day, trailing some guy named Brisco Cain by four points and coming close to losing outright in a three-candidate field. What happened?

I’ll leave you to read this Big Jolly post to get an idea. Basically, it’s one part Smith not being “conservative” enough – Cain drew a ton of support from the “grassroots” organizations – and one part this being yet another proxy fight over Speaker Joe Straus. That’s likely to be how the runoff plays out, though so far it’s been as under the radar from the perspective of an interested outsider like myself as the March race was. Smith’s best chance, it seems to me, is for Straus’ money to buy him some voter outreach, and get as many people who think he’s been good for Baytown to the polls. Cain, who ran for HD129 in 2014 but finished fourth in the seven-candidate primary, needs to harness the same seething anger that propels candidacies like his. He had a 500-vote lead on March 1, and the kind of people that vote for the kind of candidate that he is tend to be highly motivated to turn out, so I see this as Cain’s race to lose. I predict there will be at least one controversy over a mailer or online ad attacking Smith, because that’s the way these things tend to go and also because groups like Empower Texans are backing Cain. If you’re a Republican, how do you see this race?

HD139 – Democratic runoff

This is the race for Mayor Turner’s open seat, with the winner of the primary runoff the winner of the office, since there is no Republican running. (The same is true for the HD128 runoff.) Candidate Randy Bates collected the most institutional support, and he led the field when the initial results, from early and absentee voting, were published. He then collected only 20% of the vote on Election Day, and slid into third place behind Kimberly Willis and Jarvis Johnson. I’m not sure what happened there, but if I had to guess I’d posit that 1) Willis had a better ground game, and 2) Johnson benefited from the high turnout on Election Day, as perhaps it featured a higher percentage of voters who were voting for a familiar name. Like I said, that’s just a guess.

I could see this runoff going either way. I have not yet seen updated endorsements from the groups that had backed Bates in March, but I’ll be surprised if it isn’t the case that Willis cleans up among them. She has been by far the more active campaigner of the two, and Johnson’s legacy as Council member isn’t the best. I think Willis will be able to turn out some voters for this race, and that gives her the edge, but Johnson’s name recognition can’t be denied. Willis’ model needs to be Erica Lee’s runoff win for HCDE in 2012, which she accomplished despite Johnson nearly taking a majority in the first round. If she can reach enough voters, she can win.

On a side note, there is a complicating factor for this race, and that’s the special election to fill out the remainder of Turner’s term, which will be held on May 7, a mere 17 days before the primary runoff. I don’t know when the filing deadline is for this, and I don’t know who all will be in that race, but surely Willis and Johnson will file for it. If nothing else, it’s another opportunity to get out there before the voters. As long as they understand that their obligation doesn’t end with that race and they come out again on May 24, that is.

HD27 – Democratic runoff

The one non-Harris County race of interest, and the one with the highest profile so far. You know the story – three-term Rep. Ron Reynolds and his tsuris, with Annie’s List-backed Angelique Bartholomew the last candidate standing against him. Reynolds, like Briscoe Cain in HD128, was above 50% for most of the night on March 1. In fact, I went to bed around midnight having stated that Reynolds had pulled it out. Not so fast, as it happened.

What Reynolds has going for him is that a lot of people still genuinely like him – for all his self-inflicted wounds, even his opponents have compassion for him – and he hasn’t lost the support of elected officials and many establishment groups. What he has going against him, besides his conviction for barratry, is at least one establishment group that is sure to spend money to try to defeat him, money that he doesn’t have and probably won’t be able to raise. There’s also ammunition to use against him that goes beyond the barratry issue. I think he’s buoyant enough that this is still his race to lose – again, he came very close to winning outright in the first place – but he’s not invulnerable. If there are any further cracks in his support, it could shatter on him.

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4 Comments

  1. Burt Levine says:

    Charles why do you report Briscoe Cain did not run for HD-129 in 2014. He and his big family and many friends and supporters did work the early vote poll at Clear Lake Library, he had a lot of signs and mail and is listed for the votes he won on Stan Stanart’s web.

  2. If reynolds wins this election, he should step down as democratic whip.
    There are state reps that have served longer than him and have more ideas.

    Is it really that hard to google ideas and put them on a website?

  3. Jack Baker says:

    I made the mistake of voting for Jarvis Johnson and I won’t make that mistake again.
    Someone should check into whether he is a resident of the District. I did a public records search to see if he changed his ways and he hasn’t. He says he is married but divorce was finalized. He also is being sued by his business partner (or at least that what it looks like).

    Spend some time on that Kimberly Willis, she’s definitely the one who will get my vote.

  4. […] the Kuff looked at the legislative and judicial primary runoffs for Harris […]

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