Houston-area voters will select a new state senator on Tuesday as they head to the polls in a runoff special election for a vacant state Senate seat.
After a May 10 election whittled the race down from four contenders, the two remaining candidates in the heavily conservative Senate District 4 are both Republican state representatives with Tea Party backing.
The seat has been empty since late October, when Tommy Williams resigned to take a job with the Texas A&M University System.
The race to replace him between Rep. Brandon Creighton of Conroe and Rep. Steve Toth of The Woodlands, who have little to distinguish them politically, is likely to hinge on two factors: turnout and Tea Party loyalties. Creighton, the front-runner, is better-funded than Toth and was the top vote-getter in May.
“The only way for Toth to win is with miserable turnout,” said Montgomery County GOP Chairman Wally Wilkerson, who is neutral in the race.
The majority of 30,348 voters in May came from Montgomery County, the conservative suburban stronghold home to Creighton and Toth. In that race, Creighton came close to avoiding a runoff election, but he fell short of a majority, with 45.2 percent of the vote. Toth ran second with 23.7 percent, knocking out The Woodlands Township Director Gordy Bunch and former state Sen. Michael Galloway.
High turnout generally favors the front-runner, but turnout for a low-visibility special election runoff in early August is unpredictable. Wilkerson said he expects it to be down significantly from the first round, in the range of 20,000 or 25,000 voters.
As a special election, the race does not involve party primaries, so the winner of Tuesday’s runoff is headed to the state Senate.
Both candidates claim significant Tea Party credentials. Toth won success in the first round of the special election despite his relative lack of funding because of his popularity among grassroots Tea Party voters, to whom he is a hero for knocking off House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler in the 2012 Republican primary.
Creighton was chairman of the House GOP Caucus and has made defending Texas’ prerogatives under the 10th Amendment’s guarantee of states’ rights a major part of his legislative agenda. His campaign has also assiduously announced endorsements from local Tea Party groups in recent weeks.
Wilkerson said he took note when the area’s established Tea Party group, the Texas Patriots PAC, endorsed Creighton in the runoff. In the first round, it had recommended three of the four candidates — Creighton, Toth and Bunch.
A breakaway Tea Party group, the Montgomery County Tea Party, endorsed Toth, Wilkerson said. Trying to figure out who the Tea Party candidate is in Montgomery County has proven a challenge.
“It is a confusing mess for the voters,” Wilkerson said.
Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.