Running Off at the Primary

Kirk vs. Morales, Lulu vs. Eddie: Get your pencils ready.

Another week, another election ... at least, that's how it seems to Travis County voters. We've just turned around from the March primaries, and the candidate scramble has begun for the May 4 elections: City Council, charter amendments, AISD school board, Austin Community College trustees ...

But in the short term, there's more unfinished business: the April 9 runoffs in the Democratic and Republican primaries. On the Democratic ballot, two races remain to be settled: the high-profile statewide race for U.S. Senate -- Ron Kirk vs. Victor Morales -- and the multicandidate state House District 51, now filtered down to a face-off between Lulu Flores and Eddie Rodriguez.

Former Dallas mayor Kirk is now officially the frontrunner in the Senate race. Morales led on election night, but the final canvassing by the Democratic Party gave the lead to Kirk by 253 votes -- about one vote per county -- with each candidate receiving roughly 33%. Kirk also leads heavily, of course, in the money primary: At last report, he had raised $1.6 million to Morales' $10,000, which will allow him to run statewide with TV ads while Morales is confined to his weekend, person-to-person campaign. And Kirk is winning the endorsement race: Already the favorite of the party leadership, in recent days he has added the support of most of the Democratic Congressional delegation -- including defeated primary opponent Houston Congressman Ken Bentsen. "Of the candidates running," said Bentsen vaguely, "there is no question that Ron has the better qualifications to make a very fine United States senator." We presume he was referring not only to Morales, but to GOP candidate John Cornyn.

Morales continues to rely on a one-man grassroots campaign and his credentials as a populist everyman. In response to the Bentsen endorsement, he told The Dallas Morning News, "He needs every single powerful person in the state of Texas to take me on. All this to beat a teacher in a pickup truck. That's pretty sad."

In District 51, Flores and Rodriguez are wrestling for endorsements (see "The Battle Over Eddie and Lulu") and working to turn out their voters. Flores has to be considered the frontrunner -- she got 38.3% of the initial vote to Rodriguez's 26.6% -- although without the high-profile gubernatorial race to generate turnout, a runoff is a very moveable feast. Flores is celebrating this week the endorsements of Marcos De Leon and neighborhood organization El Concilio; Rodriguez welcomed the support of Sam Guzman and several environmental organizations (Sierra Club, Texas Environmental Democrats, Clean Water Action).

Although the Republican runoff hasn't generated as many headlines, there are more races to be settled on that ballot: a Supreme Court nominee, three Court of Criminal Appeals nominees, and locally, House Dist. 50. In that race, former House Rep. Bob Richardson (who led the primary field) should be favored over Jack Stick, but turnout is likely to be low enough to make the outcome uncertain.

The court races are unlikely to get interesting until the fall general election, as the GOP candidates largely confine themselves to hints, winks, and nods that they will be much tougher on defendants and/or plaintiffs than their opponents. The exception this year is the GOP race for Supreme Court Place 2: Elizabeth Ray vs. Dale Wainwright. Both define themselves as "conservative," but Ray has drawn much of her financial support from big-time plaintiffs lawyers, including John O'Quinn, John Eddie Williams, and Walter Umphrey of tobacco litigation fame -- who in the past have largely supported Democrats. Wainwright has picked up the backing of the "tort reform" crowd, whose favored candidate, John Cayce, ran third in the initial primary. Ray says the tort reformers haven't gotten everything they wanted from the Lege, so they're looking to courts to hedge their bets. Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the big tort-PAC backing Wainwright, calls Ray the "hand-picked candidate of the personal injury trial lawyer bar." Among Republicans, those are fighting words.

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