Down the Homestretch

Posted April 25, 2003 at 5:01pm

With only five days left before the special election to replace Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas), voters seem largely uninterested in a race that features 17 candidates competing for two spots in a likely runoff.

The contest, which was created by Combest’s decision to retire after nine terms representing the West Texas 19th district, has been to this point almost completely overshadowed by the war in Iraq.

Now that the main thrust of the conflict has ended, the five candidates with the best chance to advance to the runoff are hoping voters tune in to the contest in its final days.

“Since the war has wound down the campaign has heated up, and we are hoping that will increase turnout,” said former Lubbock Mayor David Langston (R), one of the top-tier candidates.

Early voting, which began in the race on April 16 and will end on Tuesday, has been shockingly sluggish, with little more than 300 people casting ballots in the 16 rural counties of the district as of late last week, according to a Texas Republican source.

“Rural Texas didn’t get the message [that there was an election on],” the source concluded.

Another interesting turnout development gleaned from early voting is that the southern portion of the district — known locally as the Permian Basin, centered on Odessa and Midland — has matched the vote totals in the more populous northern portion of the district, anchored by Lubbock.

Typically, Lubbock makes up approximately 40 percent of the Republican primary electorate compared to 35 percent for Midland and Odessa combined.

The turnout pattern “gives very much concern to the Lubbock candidates,” said Langston; he is joined in that group by state Rep. Carl Isett and former Lubbock City Councilman Randy Neugebauer. Accountant Mike Conaway and John Bell are both more closely associated with Midland.

All are Republicans, though Langston switched his party affiliation in order to make the race.

Langston has addressed the issue in his television advertising; in it, he maintains that although he was once a Democrat, he has never switched his conservative positions on issues such as taxes.

Because this is a district where President Bush would have won better than 75 percent of the vote, no Democrat is given a chance. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote on Saturday, the top two finishers advance to a June runoff.

The decidedly low turnout coupled with the massive size of the field has made predicting the outcome of the race risky at best.

“If we knew what the turnout model was, we sure as hell wouldn’t tell anyone else,” said a consultant to Conaway.

Neugebauer said his campaign anticipated the low turnout from the beginning and has spent most of his time cultivating local leaders — “bell cows,” as he called them.

Neugebauer believes his emphasis on the “bell cows” will be a turnout “tiebreaker.”

Polling conducted for several of the top Republican candidates has shown Isett, Neugebauer, Bell, Conaway and Langston all bunched together in the mid-teens.

Given the survey results and the lack of a defining issue among the candidates, the race has evolved into a name-identification battle.

This trend would seem to benefit Langston, Isett — the only current elected official in the race — and Bell.

Langston began the race as the best known of the candidates from his stewardship of Lubbock from 1992 to 1996. He also ran in a high-profile state Senate race in 1996, which he lost.

Isett has held a Lubbock-based state House seat since winning a special election in 1996. He has also secured the backing of former Rep. Kent Hance, who held the district from 1978 to 1984 as a Democrat before switching parties and running unsuccessfully for governor in 1990.

Hance has the distinction of defeating George W. Bush in the 1978 open-seat race, Bush’s maiden voyage in electoral politics.

Bell’s high name identification comes from his role as lead spokesman in a grassroots movement to limit oil imports, which were crippling oil producers (like Bell) in the Permian Basin.

Backed by the deep pockets of the domestic oil industry, Bell led a protest rally in Austin in January 1999; he also acquired the nickname “Give ‘em hell Bell.”

As a result of this campaign, Bell became a highly recognizable personality in the area. One observer described him as the “Joe Sixpack” of the oil and gas industry.

Bell, who is currently the president of the Kermit school board, entered the race in mid-March and has not filed a financial report with the Federal Election Commission.

And, he freely admits, he is being heavily outspent by his rivals.

“If the adage that he with the most money wins, then [Isett, Neugebauer or Conaway] will win,” he said. “If name recognition does it, then I feel good.”

Neugebauer has led the money chase throughout the abbreviated race and pre-special election reports filed last week with the FEC reveal that the trend has continued.

Through April 13, Neugebauer had raised $605,000 — $150,000 of which came in a personal loan — and spent $402,000. He had $203,000 in the bank.

Neugebauer has used his financial edge to fund a number of television advertisements.

In one, a group of men in a barbershop debate how to pronounce the candidate’s last name.

“Naugahyde?” asks one.

At the start of the Iraq War in mid-March, Neugebauer ran an ad telling listeners to pray for the troops. Some of his rivals accused him of attempting to take political advantage of the war.

Conaway had brought in $405,000, spent $271,000 and had $134,000 on hand.

After getting a late fundraising start, Isett has performed well with $385,000 raised, $317,000 spent and $67,000 left to spend. Isett’s fundraising has been boosted by his endorsement by the Club for Growth, which has bundled roughly $200,000 to his campaign.

Langston had raised $171,000 through April 13, with $102,000 of that coming from his own pocket. He had $1,400 left in reserve at the end of the reporting period.