Texas Runoff Could Become Nasty

Posted March 5, 2008 at 5:21pm

Texas Republican House Members are spurning the top finisher in Tuesday’s 22nd district GOP primary, ex-Rep. Shelley Sekula Gibbs, and are lining up instead behind runner-up Pete Olson.

Reps. Jeb Hensarling, Kenny Marchant and Pete Sessions have endorsed Olson, with more of their colleagues expected to follow suit — perhaps as early as today. Those Texas Republican Members backing Olson are likely to work actively to help him win the April 8 runoff, doing much more than simply lending him their names for a news release.

Sekula Gibbs, who served in Congress for seven weeks toward the end of 2006, placed first in Tuesday’s 10-way primary with 30 percent of the vote; Olson, Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) former chief of staff, finished with 21 percent.

The winner of the runoff will face Rep. Nick Lampson (D), a top Republican target, in November.

In Texas Congressional races, the two top finishers proceed to a runoff if the winner fails to break the 50 percent threshold. Any registered voter can participate in the 22nd district GOP runoff, except for those who voted in the Democratic primary on Tuesday — in Texas the party primaries are open.

“I think the runoff is going to be very very competitive,” Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill predicted Wednesday.

Republican strategists who followed the 22nd district primary believe the five-week runoff battle will get heated, as the stakes are high. The suburban Houston 22nd district tilts significantly Republican, and the winner should have the upper hand against Lampson in the fall.

Lampson’s office did not return a phone message requesting comment.

Sekula Gibbs campaign spokesman C.B. Currier indicated that his candidate, a former Houston city councilwoman and resident of the district for 23 years, will make an issue of Olson’s status as a longtime Capitol Hill aide who recently moved back to the Houston area to run for Congress.

Olson, who worked for former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) before going to work for Cornyn, grew up in Harris County and was a high school basketball star. But he went to work in Washington, D.C., after a stint in the Navy, and he hadn’t lived in the district for almost two decades before moving to Fort Bend County last year.

Currier suggested that Olson would go back to living in his Northern Virginia home full time if he was elected. Sekula Gibbs, Currier said, will spend as much time on Capitol Hill as is necessary to do her job, but will continue to live in the 22nd district.

“Shelley has great name ID, decent favorables, and is a known entity,” Currier said. “She’s lived here, served here, and is a known person among this community.”

Olson’s campaign believes its candidate is better positioned on the issues important to the kind of committed Republican voters likely to turn out for a Congressional runoff. Olson’s team is planning to highlight Sekula Gibbs’ Houston City Council voting record.

Olson’s advisers expect the former Senate aide to be attacked as a Washington, D.C., insider and carpetbagger. But they believe his performance in a primary campaign that saw him go from zero name recognition to a second-place finish on Tuesday has proved that such a line of attack won’t work.

Both campaigns plan a heavy push for grass-roots support and plan to employ a vigorous get-out-the-vote effort on the ground.

“We’re going to beat her because we have a positive message, we are solid on the policies and issues people care about in this district, and we have a ground game,” Olson said in a telephone interview. “We feel we’re going to be competitive and win this thing and take on Mr. Lampson in November.”

That many members of the Texas Republican House delegation are enthusiastically backing Olson is not an accident — and it has little to do with his Capitol Hill ties.

Many Republicans worry that Sekula Gibbs is not the strongest candidate to face Lampson. But Texas Republican House Members in particular are rebuffing her largely because of how she conducted herself during her short stint on Capitol Hill toward the end of 2006.

After winning a special election held the same day as the November 2006 midterm elections to fill the remainder of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R) term — he had resigned the previous June — Sekula Gibbs arrived in Washington and proceeded to alienate most of the Texas GOP delegation.

Sekula Gibbs also got into a disagreement with DeLay’s old Congressional staff — which she inherited — to the point where the staffers quit en masse.

Currier declined to directly address this issue and the outpouring of support by Texas GOP Members for Olson, saying only that he would hope Republican leaders would remain neutral in what is still a primary, as is often the custom.

“I’d expect loyal members of party would allow voters in the district to make their decision” without coloring their point of view, Currier said.

Woodfill cited Sekula Gibbs’ behavior while serving on Capitol Hill, and the negative press reports generated by it, as one of her primary political weaknesses heading into the April 8 runoff. But he said her name ID is strong and that her solid performance as the GOP write-in candidate against Lampson in the 2006 midterm elections could serve her well in the runoff.

Olson’s strengths, Woodfill said, are his military service background, ties to Cornyn and Gramm and personal likability. But should the anti-Washington, anti-incumbent mood that has surfaced at various times this cycle rear its head in the runoff campaign, Olson’s career as a Senate aide could be politically deadly.

But what might ultimately decide the runoff, Woodfill said, is who picks up the votes of the three candidates who finished just behind Sekula Gibbs and Olson.

State Rep. Robert Talton and former Pasadena Mayor John Manlove tied for third in the GOP primary, finishing with 15 percent each, while former Sugar Land Mayor Dean Hrbacek finished fifth with 10 percent. Who picks up those voters in the runoff will probably end up with the GOP nomination, Woodfill said.

“I think where the Talton, Manlove, Hrbacek voters go will be the key to winning this race,” he said.