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Tone of Races Could Grow Nastier During Runoffs

Candidates in several races came out swinging during the primary season, and that is not expected to ebb during the runoff campaign — particularly in the GOP races for lieutenant governor and attorney general.

After a primary season rife with attacks — which included allegations about hiring undocumented workers and accusations of ethics rules violations — the state’s intraparty faceoffs could turn more contentious during runoff season. 

After several races moved on to the runoff stage Tuesday night — most notably the Republican contests for lieutenant governor and Texas attorney general — Texans appear set for more testy campaigning ahead of the May 27 runoff election.

“I think [the nastiness] definitely will" crescendo during the runoff campaign, said Corbin Casteel, a Republican consultant. “It’s one-on-one now.”

In part, that’s just because of a simple rule of campaigning. In a runoff, candidates must contrast themselves with just one opponent, making it difficult to avoid negative campaigning that could backfire in a wide-open primary.

“Whenever you have a crowded field, you never want to be the guy throwing the punches because that reflects back on you,” said Luke Macias, a Republican campaign consultant.

The field has narrowed at a time when the candidates' policy preferences — and potential vulnerabilities — have long been made public and voters can glean little more information about how they differ on the issues. That reality is likely to spur candidates to look for other ways to contrast themselves. 

In some of this year’s primary races, candidates swung early and often, meaning attacks could escalate as campaigns pick out which criticisms to recycle and as they continue to dig up dirt.

The Republican runoff for attorney general could get particularly heated as state Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, and state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, face off after Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman exited the race.

When it was still a three-man battle, Smitherman made Paxton a target. In one campaign ad, he accused Paxton of allegedly violating ethics rules and failing to disclose financial information during his time in office. And at a luncheon just days before the election, Smitherman accused Paxton’s supporters of making personal attacks against his wife — a charge Paxton’s campaign called “bizarre and reckless.” 

Meanwhile, Branch also recently hit Paxton after the The Dallas Morning News reported that Paxton had lost money in what the Morning News described as a "Ponzi-like" scheme.

Macias said those criticisms could linger into the runoff campaigns, because they only recently emerged. He expects Branch to continue raising such questions about his opponent, while Paxton will focus on Branch’s legislative record, which Paxton has painted as too liberal. 

In the Republican lieutenant governor runoff, a key question is how incumbent David Dewhurst will respond after Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, drew more than 41 percent of the vote to Dewhurst's 28 percent. 

Patrick was the target of a steady stream of attacks from two opponents who were eliminated on Tuesday — Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. Also, reports emerged that undocumented immigrants were hired to work in a chain of sports restaurants Patrick owned in the 1980s. Patterson said his campaign hired an investigator to find one of the workers.

Casteel said he expects Dewhurst to latch on to that criticism and perhaps escalate it, particularly in a race where there has been much discussion on immigration policy.

But would those attacks work? Tuesday’s results appear to say otherwise. 

“The election was proof positive that the attacks didn’t resonate with voters,” Macias said. “They’re going to have to come up with something different.”

Meanwhile, Patrick is likely to attack Dewhurst as an ineffective leader of the Texas Senate, criticism that played a major role in the primary's first round, while Dewhurst will try to tout his experience.

“Hopefully, the candidates will stick to issues that are relevant to the office they seek,” Casteel said. 

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/03/06/ahead-may-runoffs-politics-could-grow-nastier/.

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