Runoff Review – Part II

Map of US Congressional districts in Texas

By Jim Ellis

March 26, 2020 — With Gov. Greg Abbott (R) moving the Texas runoff election date, it has drastically changed the short-term Lone Star State political scene. At the end of last week, Abbott transferred the post-primary runoff election date from May 26 to July 14 in consideration of COVID-19 virus precautions.

Statewide, the US Senate Democratic primary is headed to a runoff election, as well as 15 different congressional campaigns.

In the Senate race, retired Army helicopter pilot M.J. Hegar, who held Rep. John Carter (R-Georgetown) to a 51-48 percent re-election victory in 2018, placed first in the Democratic primary with 22.4 percent of the vote, but a long way from the 50 percent plateau a candidate needs to claim a party nomination. She will face state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) who slipped into second place by just over a percentage point in the 12-candidate field. Sen. Royce scored 14.5 percent statewide.

The eventual nominee faces three-term Sen. John Cornyn (R), who easily secured re-nomination in his Republican primary (76 percent over four opponents). The longer runoff cycle should typically help the second place finisher, since the individual has more time to change the campaign’s flow. In this case, however, the Democratic nominee, who already starts as a severe underdog to Sen. Cornyn, would lose valuable general election time with the later runoff, thus making the task of overcoming the incumbent even more formidable.

Of the 15 House runoffs, nine are viable to some degree. The six that are not lie in districts that are safe for one party or the other. For example, it matters little which Democrat wins the 13th District runoff (Trump ’16: 79.9 percent), or who eventually becomes the victorious Republican in the 18th CD secondary vote (Clinton ’16: 76.5 percent).

Rep. Van Taylor’s (R-Plano) north Texas seat is typically thought of as safely Republican, but his 54 percent win percentage in 2018 was considerably below the average GOP vote. Two attorneys, Sean McCaffity and Lulu Seikaly will now do battle until July 14 to see who faces Rep. Taylor in his first re-election bid. The two were virtually tied in the Democratic primary, 44.5 – 43.7 percent, with the slight edge going to McCaffity. Rep. Taylor will be the decided favorite in November.

Veteran Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Austin) had a close call in 2018, as he carried his 10th District that stretches from Austin to Houston with a 51-47 percent victory margin over attorney Mike Siegel, who returns this year for a re-match. First, however, Siegel must win a Democratic runoff against physician Pritesh Gandhi in another situation where the elongated runoff cycle will not help the eventual Democratic challenger. Siegel led Dr. Gandhi 44-33 percent in the March 3 primary. Rep. McCaul is favored for re-election.

A 13th District Republican runoff is underway between former congressional aide and legislative advocate Josh Winegarner and retired Navy Admiral and ex-White House physician Ronny Jackson. The latter man received President Trump’s endorsement right before the primary, which likely helped propel him into second position. The winner of this July 14 runoff will take the seat in November. Winegarner claimed first position with a 39-20 percent spread over Dr. Jackson, so this is another instance where the longer runoff cycle could help the second place finisher.

Former Rep. Pete Sessions’ (R) move from Dallas back to his old boyhood home of Waco to run in an open 17th District seat was controversial, but it looks like the trek may pay dividends. Sessions placed first in the field of 12 Republican candidates with almost 32 percent of the vote. The second-place finisher, health care company official Renee Swann, who carries outgoing Rep. Bill Flores’ (R-Bryan/College Station) endorsement, recorded 19 percent of the vote. Recently, the third-place finisher, businessman George Hindman who posted 18 percent of the vote, endorsed Sessions. The runoff will decide the November winner, as the 17th District is safely Republican (Trump ’16: 56.3 percent).

The Houston area’s open 22nd District is definitely a contest where the longer runoff cycle could help a second-place finisher. Ft. Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls placed first with 40 percent of the vote in the March 3 Republican primary as compared to businesswoman Kathaleen Wall’s 19 percent. Finishing third with 15 percent was Pierce Bush, grandson of former president, George H.W. Bush.

Sheriff Nehls received virtually all of his vote from Ft. Bend County, losing both the Brazoria and Harris County portions of the district within the 15-person candidate field. Sheriff Nehls had little money and took advantage of his strong county-wide name identification, but Wall is independently wealthy and has the ability to spend millions on the runoff race. This contest now becomes highly competitive through July 14.

The eventual winner faces former foreign service officer Sri Preston Kulkarni, who won the Democratic primary outright. Kulkarni held retiring Rep. Pete Olson (R-Sugar Land) to a 51-46 percent win in 2018. The general election will be competitive and a national Democratic target, though the Republican primary drew more voters in March despite the Democrats holding a competitive Super Tuesday presidential contest.

In the open 23rd District, a swing seat that stretches from San Antonio all the way to El Paso, Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones easily won her party nomination on March 3. She held retiring Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio) to a bare 926 vote victory in 2018. This race may be the Democrats’ best conversion opportunity in the country, and now Republicans are in a long runoff. Retired Navy veteran Tony Gonzales and homebuilder Raul Reyes battle for the GOP nomination. Gonzales placed first with a 28-23 percent margin. The seat will lean Democratic in the general election.

Former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne won the Republican primary outright on March 3 in her attempt to keep the open 24th District in the Republican column, now that veteran Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Coppell) is retiring.

Democrats are in a runoff between retired Air Force Colonel Kim Olson and local school board trustee Candace Valenzuela. Olson was the party’s statewide Agriculture Commissioner nominee in the 2018 election. This year, she finished first in the Democratic congressional primary with 41 percent of the vote versus’ Valenzuela’s 30 percent. This will be a competitive general election, but Van Duyne’s strong Republican primary win, and the fact that Olson is tied down until mid-July in a partisan runoff, gives the new GOP nominee a needed edge.

Incumbent Rep. Carter had an unusually close general election two years ago as mentioned above. With his former opponent, retired Army helicopter pilot M.J. Hegar, in the Democratic US Senate runoff the 31st District falls into a Democratic secondary election, and neither participant is expected to emulate Hegar’s strong 2018 political effort. Physician Christine Mann and businesswoman Donna Imam are battling for the Democratic nomination. Mann finished first in the March 3 primary with a 35-31 percent margin. Rep. Carter again remains the favorite for re-election.

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