In the May 10 special election to replace state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, four Republican candidates are looking to prove to Senate District 4 voters that they are the right brand of conservative for the district.
Williams, who chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee and had held the seat since 2003, left last year to become the Texas A&M University System’s new vice chancellor of federal and state relations. The candidates looking to succeed him include businessman Gordy Bunch; state Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; former state Sen. Michael Galloway; and state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands.
SD-4 includes Chambers and Jefferson counties and parts of Galveston, Harris and Montgomery counties. Candidates from any party can compete in the special election, but the four entrants have filed as Republicans. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held.
“There are four nice guys running — four conservatives — but in the Senate, it’s not enough to just be a conservative voice. You’ll get pushed out,” Toth said. “You need a conservative record and fight to get things done.”
Voters could have trouble seeing clear differences among the candidates. They are each running on a platform of smaller government — decreasing spending and cutting taxes — that they say would create a better Texas for future generations. They are all talking about infrastructure needs, particularly roads and water, and they talk about the need for increased support for securing the state’s border with Mexico.
The candidates do, however, have some unique qualities.
Bunch, who founded The Woodlands Financial Group, an insurance business, has called himself a “serial entrepreneur.” He says his experience in business and in helping cut spending while on The Woodlands Township Board of Directors would help him stand out as a leader in Austin.
He said he plans to focus on the human trafficking problem in Houston, which he said is not getting enough attention in the region.
“Houston is the No. 1 place in the country for slave and sex trade, and it’s coming through our ports,” Bunch said.
Toth, who says he will cater to the needs of Texans and not special-interest groups, said that the foster care system is broken and that the state needs adoption reform. He said the current system encourages parents to not adopt and puts a strain on the state’s prison system. He said the whole foster care system needs to be overhauled.
“We can change this. Too many kids age out of the system and end up in prison,” Toth said. “The current system incentivizes families to only care about the monthly check.”
Galloway, who represented SD-4 from 1995 to 1999, cites his success in cutting taxes when the Legislature was not so strongly a Republican majority. “The voters are tired of this patronizing rhetoric and unkept promises,” he said, expressing concerns with the budget. Galloway says he would work to decrease spending, which he said should be easy with a GOP-controlled Legislature but hasn't been the case.
Galloway, who was 29 when he was elected to the Senate, said then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock nicknamed him “pup.” But “it didn’t take my colleagues long to rename me as bulldog or pitbull,” Galloway said. “I have a reputation of being a fighter.”
Representatives for Creighton’s campaign did not return requests to comment for this article. But his campaign has touted that he is “the man who kept Obamacare out of Texas,” that he would fight to protect Texas from federal overreach and that he would work to mandate drug testing for welfare recipients who get food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program payments.
With the race being largely overshadowed by the higher-profile May 27 primary runoffs, candidates will have to rely heavily on mobilizing their supporters.
“It’s an odd election at an odd time,” Galloway said. The candidates are expecting a 3 percent maximum turnout for the election.
“That level of apathy is disturbing coming from a state with so much pride,” Bunch said. If the vote “comes in higher than [3 percent], we are going to be ecstatic, which is sad.”
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said multiple factors have given Creighton and Toth the upper hand in the race.
“Reps. Creighton and Toth are the clear front-runners, Creighton having raised a great deal of money and Toth having racked up many conservative endorsements. They are both the most well-known and have clearly established themselves as the key, credible conservatives in the race,” said Rottinghaus, who added that a runoff is likely.
“There are differences, but mainly of form over substance,” Rottinghaus said. “Conservative voters may be legitimately split by a question of tone over tactics."
Whoever wins the special election will hold the seat until it is up for its regular election in 2016. Early voting began Monday.
Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System and the University of Houston are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.