John Lujan’s seemingly improbable special runoff election win last night invokes a little history, and it isn’t favorable for the new Rep.-elect.
On December 18, 2007, Fort Worth attorney Dan Barrett, a Democrat, won a special runoff election, 52%-48%, over pediatrician Mark Shelton to claim the unexpired term of former Rep. Anna Mowery (R-Fort Worth). He was sworn in on December 31, 2007. He participated in the interim hearings for the committees to which he was assigned. His signature is on the interim report of the Committee on Land and Resource Management, dated November 15, 2008. He never took a vote on the House floor, and he never filed a bill.
To many, Barrett’s win was a surprise. HD97 was reliably Republican. John Kerry barely broke 35% in 2004. Mowery consistently received at least 65% in every contested general election. In the 2006 general election, there were 4,375 more straight-ticket Republican votes cast than straight-ticket Democratic votes, despite the presence of a well-known Republican-turned-independent in the governor’s race. Barrett ran for the seat in 2006, losing the general election to Mowery, 54%-46%. Tellingly, it was the best performance by a Democratic candidate against Mowery.
Barrett was the lone Democrat in a seven-way special election to succeed Mowery. He finished first with 32% of the vote. Shelton came in second at 23%, edging out former Rep. Bob Leonard and future Rep. Craig Goldman. Collectively, the Republican candidates received 68%. Almost 18K voted in the special election, and at least 7,500 of them didn’t come back for the runoff. Shelton blamed the loss on voter apathy. “This has traditionally been a Republican district, and I think [the voters] thought Republicans would always win and they stayed home,” Shelton told KERA News. Turnout for the runoff was less than one-fourth of the previous general election.
Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka called Barrett’s upset one of the top 10 political events of the year. Democrats believed they could re-take the House of Representatives, as Barrett’s win pulled them to within five seats, and oust Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland). At the time, Republican Party Chair Tina Benkiser called Barrett’s win called Barrett’s win “a temporary victory for the most liberal wing of the Texas Democratic Party as the victor will never get to cast a single vote.”
Setting aside the Speaker politics woven into, and emerging from, the race, it was in several respects a portent of things to come in 2008. Democrats, buoyed by the “hope and change” message of Barack Obama, came within a few votes in a Dallas-area district of achieving a 75-75 tie in the House. Indeed, Speaker Craddick, who campaigned for Shelton before the runoff, was not re-elected to the House leadership in 2009.
But Barrett wasn’t there to vote for someone else as Speaker. Shelton defeated Barrett, 55%-43%, in the 2008 general election, returning the seat to the Republican Party, which had held it for three decades. Barrett would go on to run for mayor of Fort Worth in 2011, taking 8% of the vote. Shelton was re-elected with only minor-party opposition in 2010 and then lost two straight races for SD10. Craddick is running unopposed for a 25th term.
The stakes are not as high, at least in terms of control of the House or who will be Speaker, for HD118 in 2016, but the specter of Dan Barrett has already appeared.
Republican John Lujan claimed a special runoff election victory over Democrat Tomas Uresti, 52%-48%, in a Democratic district last night. Republican Party of Texas Chairman Tom Mechler said this election “will foreshadow what is to come in 2016.” Some Democrats blamed the defeat on voter apathy and an injury that forced Uresti to the sidelines for much of the campaign’s last week. Progressive Democrats blamed the defeat on the candidate, who they said wasn’t progressive enough. Both sets of Democrats believe the next general election will return HD118 to Democratic control. Echoing the former Republican Party chair, Democratic Party Executive Director Manny Garcia said, “The newly elected Republican state representative of San Antonio will never take a vote in the Legislature.”
Just over 4% of registered voters cast ballots in last night’s special runoff election, down considerably from the 27% who voted in the 2014 general election and by an order of magnitude from the 51% who voted in the 2012 general election. Wendy Davis carried the district by 7 points over Greg Abbott in 2014, and Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 12 points in 2012. There were 1,610 more straight-ticket Democratic votes than straight-ticket Republican votes in 2014. The advantage increases in presidential election years. In 2012, any Republican running in HD118 started in a 5,324-vote hole.
Republicans have challenged for the seat four times since 2002, and three of them – Robert Casias in 2012, George Antuna in 2006 and Steve Salyer in 2004 – received at least 40% of the vote. No Republican has had the power of incumbency, until now. Lujan’s campaign is not over. He must win a contested primary (against Casias, who received 5% in the special election) and a likely hotly contested general election against either Uresti or Farias’ son Gabe, who finished third in the special election with 19%. Either Democrat will be favored over Lujan, based on the Democrats’ straight-ticket voting advantage in the district.
There are only two ways Lujan can avoid becoming the next Dan Barrett: Gov. Abbott can call a special session, during which Lujan would cast votes on legislation, or he can buck history, win in another upset in November and cast a vote for Speaker on January 10, 2017.