A last-minute infusion of cash from big Republican donors might have been the deciding factor in state Rep. Todd Baxter's narrow and still questionable victory late Tuesday, but the additional windfall came too late to rescue fellow GOP freshman Rep. Jack Stick.
Stick lost to District 50 Democratic challenger Mark Strama in a 49%-48% cliffhanger (Libertarian Greg Knowles took nearly 2,400 votes), while Baxter's opponent, Democrat Kelly White, may seek a recount of the tally that produced a 171-vote margin for the incumbent in District 48. The two Travis Co. races were among the nastiest in the state and, even with Baxter's slim victory, spoke well of Democratic efforts to gain strong footholds in districts that were specifically designed for Republican control. In the final days, Baxter pulled out his playbook of 11th-hour campaign mailers against White, as he did in his 2002 race to unseat Democratic state Rep. Ann Kitchen. White's supporters surmise that Baxter had the attack mailer ready to roll by the time his last-minute contributions, totaling $136,000, arrived in the final four days of the campaign.
Still, Baxter's squeaker victory doesn't speak well for a Republican incumbent in a district with a 57% GOP majority. The district includes wealthy West Austin households and extends farther west and northwest. The narrow vote difference, coupled with power outages at some of the District 48 precincts, will likely lead to a recount. "The tight margin does require more scrutiny, considering unanswered questions," said White campaign manager Robert Jones. "There could be a world of new information, and conceivably the paper ballots could make up the margin. At this point we're not taking anything off the table." It was uncertain at press time how many precincts were affected by the power outage that temporarily wiped out electronic voting machines. Paper ballots were used in those cases.
Perhaps even more important are the provisional and overseas ballots waiting to be counted. The county elections division reports that 163 provisional ballots were cast in District 48. Also, 915 overseas ballots were sent out that have not yet been returned. Fisher did not yet know how many of those, if any, would affect District 48. The overseas ballots must be received by the county by 5pm Sunday, and the county will canvass the election for final totals next Wednesday.
"I knew logically that it would be a close race, but I didn't know it would be this close," White said at one point when returns were still being counted. At 10pm, White was up by more than 600 votes, with 34 out of 49 precincts reporting. Baxter, she said, ran his first campaign as a moderate, but seemed to dismiss his bipartisan supporters once he took office. White, the former executive director of SafePlace, likely enjoyed greater bipartisan support than did Baxter in this race.
Throughout both House races, Baxter and Stick faced tough questions for having accepted corporate campaign contributions in their 2002 election bids. The political money bears the taint of an ongoing criminal investigation into campaign spending by two heavy-hitter GOP PACs Texans for a Republican Majority and the Texas Association of Business. Baxter and Stick's votes helped carry out DeLay's congressional redistricting plan, which undoubtedly cost them votes at the polls on Tuesday. Similarly, the two freshmen won few friends with their support of a budget that devastated health and human services programs, particularly in the area of children's health insurance.
Democrats succeeded in hitting Stick hard on a number of ethical issues, particularly his ties to the insurance lobby. Strama's campaign successfully churned Stick's vulnerabilities to the Democrat's advantage and proved nimble enough to crank out admonishing press releases at the drop of a hat. Stick, on the other hand, never even got his campaign Web site fully up to speed, with "check back soon" messages languishing through Election Day. And his ham-handed use of the media may have been his undoing; he seemed to cause more damage each time he tried to defend or explain away his actions. Baxter, on the other hand, ignored media queries by simply not returning phone calls. He was too busy trying to salvage his slipping poll numbers that continued to show White gaining ground on his turf. He struck back, attacking White as a lying, tax-increasing, toll road- and Robin-Hood-supporting liberal. Baxter also enjoyed last-minute telephone help from U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Texas first lady Anita Perry.
White campaign staffers feared the worst when they learned that five of the candidate's supporters were busted for toilet-papering Baxter's house on the eve of the election. One of those cited for the Class C misdemeanor happens to live across the street from Baxter. Her support of White created a minineighborhood feud two weeks ago that had Baxter's wife, Courtney, tapping out a widely distributed e-mail that referred to White as a "male-hating liberal." White is married to businessman and community leader Bill McLellan.
Stick, for his part, tried to capitalize on his newfound marriage with a campaign mail piece that touted the couple as strongly anti-gay marriage. So what else is new? It was a last-ditch effort to salvage whatever conservative base he lost when he backed Gov. Rick Perry's casino gambling proposal, touted as the answer to the school finance mess. Both efforts failed.
Meanwhile, three weeks of negative advertising from his GOP opponent helped put Democratic state Rep. Patrick Rose over the top in his run to retain his District 45 House seat in the GOP-leaning foothills of Hays, Blanco, and Caldwell counties. Alan Askew's TV ads, along with "50 college kids who never gave up," were just a couple of factors contributing to Rose's 55% win, campaign manager Mark Littlefield said. And then there was Rose, of course, whose reputation as a tireless campaigner grew out of his 2002 campaign and his come-from-behind triumph over Republican incumbent Rick Green. Green, who faced some serious ethical dilemmas while in office, supported Askew this time around and Rose made certain voters were aware of that. "This district respects hard work, and because Patrick worked incredibly hard his first term, voters had a primary resource ... they had Patrick's record on insurance reform, tort reform, and education," Littlefield said. "And all the other candidate had was partisan politics." Askew ran on a conservative platform with evangelical overtones, and he even had the endorsement of controversial right-wing Rev. Jerry Falwell.
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