Runoffs Produce Foes for Edwards, Sandlin

Posted April 18, 2004 at 2:54pm

After three special sessions of the state Legislature, myriad legal appeals, primaries and runoffs, Texas Republicans finally have settled on their nominees to run against two of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the country.

In the East Texas 1st district, former state district Judge Louie Gohmert (R) won a 57 percent runoff victory on Tuesday and will face Rep. Max Sandlin (D) in November.

Halfway across the state in the Waco-based 17th district, state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R) is set to challenge Rep. Chet Edwards (D) after defeating former Waco school board member Dot Snyder (R) last Tuesday.

Both Sandlin and Edwards were major targets of the Republican redistricting efforts in 2003 that led to the party switch of Rep. Ralph Hall (R) and the retirement of Rep. Jim Turner (D).

The new lines, signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry (R) late last year, also forced Reps. Martin Frost (D) and Charlie Stenholm (D) into races against Republican incumbents and put Rep. Nick Lampson (D) in a Republican-leaning district. Former state District Judge Ted Poe (R) will oppose Lampson.

Two new Republican open seats were created, with accountant Mike Conaway (R) winning the Midland-based 11th district primary and former U.S. Attorney Mike McCaul (R) defeating a free-spending businessman in a runoff for the new 10th district, which runs from Austin to Houston. [see related story]. Conaway and McCaul are locks to wind up in the 109th Congress’ freshman class.

Attention now turns to the fall where Republicans are optimistic about Gohmert’s and Wohlgemuth’s chances given the GOP tilt of the districts and the new conservative territory both incumbents have gained.

At this point, Sandlin appears to be the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the country who is not facing a colleague in the fall.

He did little to improve his prospects in the first fundraising quarter of the year, bringing in just $198,000. He had only $374,000 in the bank.

National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti called Sandlin’s cash position “very weak.”

Sandlin retorted that he has not yet begun his fundraising effort for the race, adding that he “anticipates outraising my Republican opponent.”

After spending $450,000 on the primary and runoff, Gohmert was financially depleted himself at the end of March, showing just $119,000 on hand.

The district is served by the inexpensive Tyler-Lufkin-Longview media market but even Democrats acknowledge that Sandlin must drastically improve his fundraising to have a chance.

Gohmert’s primary victory presents another major hurdle for Sandlin as the former judge showed an ability to effectively turn out his base in Smith County (Tyler) — the population center of the seat.

In the runoff against 2002 4th district nominee John Graves (R), Gohmert took 77 percent in Smith, a vote total that comprised 65 percent of all the ballots cast for him.

Democrats point out that Gohmert won only three of the district’s 12 other counties in the runoff, but agree that Sandlin must devise a method to crack the Republican’s base in Smith to win.

Sandlin maintained that roughly 30 percent of Smith County is made up of minorities that he has already begun to target.

These voters have not participated in the past “due to the fact they haven’t had anyone to vote for,”according to Sandlin.

The 17th district general election has gotten off to a very fast start thanks in large part to Edwards’ aggressiveness.

On the day following the Republican runoff, Edwards held a news conference with a number of retired military officials in College Station and launched his first television commercial of the contest targeting that area.

Called “Aggie,” the ad focuses on the fact that Edwards graduated from Texas A&M University, which is based in College Station.

“What were the values Chet Edwards learned as a student at A&M?” asks the ad’s narrator. “Hard work and results.”

“We take this campaign very seriously and Brazos County is going to be a key county in this race,” said Edwards campaign manager Chris Turner.

The dynamics of the general election appear to mirror those of the Republican runoff, which focused almost entirely on Brazos (College Station), where neither candidate had a natural geographic base. It is the second largest county in the district after McClennan, which contains the city of Waco.

Edwards has represented the Waco area since coming to Congress in 1990 while Wohlgemuth currently holds a state House seat in Johnson County, which encompasses the southern suburbs of Dallas.

In the runoff Wohlgemuth lost McClennan to Snyder by an overwhelming margin but was able to emerge victorious by maximizing her Johnson County base and winning the toss-up area in Brazos.

On paper, the district has strong Republican tendencies. In 2002, GOP candidates for statewide office received an average of 64 percent compared to only 36 percent for statewide Democrats there.

In the closest statewide race in recent memory, Rick Perry (R) took 52 percent against John Sharp (D) in the 1998 lieutenant governor’s race in the new 17th.

Wohlgemuth is one of the most conservative Republican state legislators and is expected to have the backing of the influential Club for Growth, which bundled her more than $300,000 in the primary and runoff.

Edwards held a hefty cash lead at the end of March, however. He ended the period with $816,000 on hand to Wohlgemuth’s $52,000.

Turner, Edwards’ manager, sought to make an issue of Wohlgemuth’s conservatism.

“Wohlgemuth is to the far extreme right wing of the Texas Republican Party, which is not easy to do,” he said.

Republican performance aside, the NRCC’s Forti said that the new areas of the district that Edwards picked up in the remap will define the race.

“The majority of this district is still new for him,” said Forti. “When you have to go in and choose the ‘R’ or ‘D’ that is a difference for people who don’t know him.”

Edwards’ old 11th district encompassed Waco and Fort Hood, which is now in Rep. John Carter’s (R) 31st district. The new district takes on territory to the north of the old 11th that Edwards has not held before.

The other two Republican runoffs held last Tuesday produced nominees given little chance of ousting Democrats in November. Former Cuero Mayor Michael Thamm (R) won the right to face Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D) in the 15th district; attorney Jim Hopson won the Republican nod in the South Texas 28th, but it remains unclear whom the eventual Democratic nominee will be.

Former Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar (D) defeated 28th District Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) by just more than 200 votes in the primary, but the Congressman is currently pursuing a legal challenge to the results.

Former state Judge Joseph Hart was appointed late last week to oversee the case. Rodriguez alleges that there is no explanation for the appearance of more than 400 untallied votes during a recount of the primary results.