Crowded Battlefield

Posted April 2, 2003 at 5:17pm

For the 17 candidates running in the May 3 special election to replace Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas), the ongoing war in Iraq is less of a distraction to their campaigns than the size of the field.

Eleven of the candidates are Republicans, two are Democrats and one each hails from the Green, Independent, Libertarian and Constitution parties. The filing deadline was 5 p.m. Wednesday.

“It’s hard to know who you shoot at,” said former Lubbock Mayor David Langston (R), one of the four candidates given a realistic chance of advancing to the all-but-certain June runoff. Early voting in the race begins April 16 and ends April 29.

Combest is resigning from Congress, effective May 31, for personal reasons after serving nine full terms and a four-year stint as chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

“This race is about who has a story and who can stand out,” said a consultant to Midland businessman Mike Conaway (R) who did not want to be identified. “If you are standing next to [16] men and women in this district, you had better have an angle.”

In this conservative West Texas district, there is little disagreement among the candidates — or even most voters — about the war or the Bush administration.

Although President Bush is a popular figure throughout the Lone Star State after his six years as governor, his connection with 19th district voters is even stronger.

It was there that Bush made his first run for political office, losing a 1978 challenge to then-Rep. Kent Hance (D) 53 percent to 47 percent.

“In this race [the war] is a non-issue because every serious contender is supporting the president,” said former Lubbock City Councilman Randy Neugebauer (R).

Conaway’s consultant put it more succinctly: “Everybody in this district is going to be for God, guns and Bush.”

Despite their support of the war, the candidates have handled their media campaigns differently since the fighting began on March 19.

Neugebauer has adopted the most unconventional approach of the top candidates, taking his television ads down for four days before launching a spot decrying campaign discussions and urging viewers to pray for the troops.

“As our fighting men and women go into battle, we need to put aside our differences and focus on what’s really important,” Neugebauer says in the ad, which was produced by Scott Howell & Co. “That’s something we can all agree on.”

“When we think it is appropriate we will go back to more campaign-oriented spots,” Neugebauer told Roll Call.

Conaway, Langston and state Rep. Carl Isett (R) are up on the air with more traditional ads touting their biographies and stances on issues.

As for Neugebauer’s ad, Langston sees more than just an altruistic goal in mind. [IMGCAP(1)]

“The ads Randy is putting on may be accomplishing what he wants, which is to get his name out there,” said Langston.

The Conaway aide accused Neugebauer of being “too cute by half.”

The skirmishes between the candidates, however, are flying well below the radar of the average primary voter, the candidates acknowledge.

Aside from the war, the size of the field and the odd election date are complicating their attempts to attract attention.

That clutter “blurs the message,” Langston said. “People haven’t focused on the race at this point in time.”

Neugebauer agreed that the field “overwhelms everybody,” and that “the average person that is not that politically active is not engaged.”

Langston is probably the best known of the four leading candidates, and he believes that he benefits the most from the lack of attention on the race.

Langston served as mayor of Lubbock, the largest city in the district, from 1992 to 1996. He left shortly after winning a third term to run in a special election for a state Senate seat, which he lost.

In his mayoral and Senate races, Langston ran as a Democrat. He switched parties just prior to joining the Congressional race.

Despite his past party affiliation, Langston believes his name-identification edge in the district will deliver him into the runoff.

“At least until you get into the runoff, name identification is going to be the game,” Langston said.

One GOP strategist argued that Langston’s ads and his stump speech are directly aimed at appealing to Democrats in the district, who could provide a decisive margin in the open primary.

The two Democrats running — former television reporter Kay Gaddy and Jerri Simmons-Ausmussen — are given little chance of seriously impacting the race.

Conaway and Isett are each trying to chip into Langston’s name-identification edge by carving out their own niches in the broad spectrum of candidates.

Conaway is touting himself as “Bush’s accountant,” according to a consultant working with the campaign.

“[Conaway] is a proven businessman,” the consultant added. “When George Bush was starting a company he turned to Mike Conaway.”

Conaway and Bush were partners in Bush Exploration from 1982 to 1987; for the past seven years, Conaway has served as a Bush appointee on the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy, and is currently board chairman.

That connection to Bush is being featured in Conaway’s television advertising.

Isett is choosing to focus on his experience in the state Legislature and his background as a lieutenant commander in the naval reserves.

First elected to the state House in a 1996 special election, Isett is considered a close ally of state House Speaker Tom Craddick (R) — who is from Midland, part of the 19th district — and Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Isett also has the backing of Hance, who held the seat from 1978 to 1984 as a Democrat. Hance lost a Democratic Senate primary in 1984 and switched parties to unsuccessfully run for governor in 1990.

“Representative Isett intends to run this race as he has run all his races,” said campaign manager Alfredo Rodriguez. “He will discuss his record and ask others to stand on their records.”

Although most observers agree that some combination of Isett, Conaway, Neugebauer and Langston will advance to the runoff, uncertainty is still the order of the day.

“The person who has the biggest church could be in the runoff and no one would have expected it,” one Republican said.