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State Senate: Hard Right Targets Wentworth

Conservative Jeff Wentworth not far right enough for a GOP primary

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 20, 2012

Jeff Wentworth
Jeff Wentworth
Photo by John Anderson

For many Austinites, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth is a living, breathing symbol of the GOP's contempt for Travis County voters. His district wends its way from his base in San Antonio into southwest Travis, and some of his policy positions – such as supporting concealed firearms on college campuses – can be the epitome of conservative dogma. But in GOP primary season, the veteran Republican lawmaker often finds his political life imperiled for not being "conservative enough."

The July 31 primary run-off pits the seven-term senator against Donna Campbell, an ophthalmologist currently based in New Braunfels. In general elections, Wentworth has been politically bulletproof, so easily swatting away recent Dem­o­cratic challengers that in 2010 the Dems didn't even field an opponent against him. But the hard-liners in his own party have never been satisfied with an incumbent they see as weak on taxes and insufficiently anti-choice on abortion. He last saw a primary opponent in 2002, narrowly fending off a far-right challenge from state Rep. John Shields, and that victory seemed to blunt his conservative opposition. But the same factions within his party that bolstered Shields' challenge are now backing Camp­bell, a Tea Party creation whose political career includes a pulverizing loss to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett in 2010.

Donna Campbell
Donna Campbell

The initial primary round was rough for Wentworth, who faced two challenges from the right. Based on campaign contributions, the presumed front-runner was former Railroad Com­mis­sioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, who pulled in over $1.6 million in the first three months of the year. That dwarfed Went­worth's healthy $298,000, and made Campbell's $20,000 look anemic. Yet money can't directly buy elections, and while there was no clear winner on primary night, there was a definite loser. Ames Jones slunk into third place at 30.5%, behind Campbell's 33.7%. Wentworth led, but, as an incumbent with a disappointing 35.8% share, he now finds himself trapped in a run-off with the Tea Party darling.

The primary results also showed a geographically split district. Campbell's name recognition was apparently bolstered by her unsuccessful congressional run, and she took Comal, Guadalupe, Hays, and Travis. Wentworth narrowly secured Kendall, but won easily in his native Bexar County. Arguably, Campbell has a big advantage with the fervor of her Tea Party supporters, but her base is spread thinly over mainly rural populations. Wentworth's path to victory would presumably depend on whether he can double down on the turnout of his suburban San Antonio supporters.

The pair have both issued positive ads – Campbell backed by unnamed smiling faces, touting conservative talking points, and Wentworth praised as a "relentless problem solver" by local GOP luminaries such as state representative (and former New Braun­fels mayor) Doug Miller. Nevertheless, this has become a mean-spirited campaign. Ames Jones endorsed Campbell, noting that the pair combined to claim two-thirds of the vote. Campbell's supporters over at notorious conservative think tank/attack dog Empower Texans have created the website www.jeffwentworth.com (painfully close to Wentworth's own campaign site, www.senator jeffwentworth.com), where they describe him in GOP fighting terms as "the most liberal Republican senator in Austin." Wentworth has not been shy about going on the offense, labeling Campbell as a carpetbagger who only moved into the district in November, and noting that Went­worth is "the only Republican candidate for District 25 who pays homeowner property taxes and works inside our district."

The GOP spat leaves Democratic nominee John Courage temporarily on the sidelines, waiting to see who will become his November opponent. Courage called the campaign "preposterous" and said, "Neither of them is talking about what they would do in Austin to improve public education or healthcare or any of the concerns that most Texans have. They're just trying to 'out-conservative' one another."

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