There were two special elections in Texas yesterday, both to fill State Senate seats, and both of them will require runoffs to pick winners. In the SD 1 race to replace the retiring Bill Ratliff, Democrat Paul Sadler held a small lead over Republican Kevin Eltife.
Nearly complete returns showed Mr. Sadler, 48, a Henderson lawyer, in first place with 39 percent of the vote, while Mr. Eltife, 44, a real estate developer, had 36 percent. State Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, was well back in third place.
In Senate District 1, Mr. Sadler attributed his showing to his experience in the Legislature, where as chairman of the House Public Education Committee he authored major school reform measures and passed the first teacher health insurance program in Texas.
"There are only 31 state senators, and the Senate is no place for a novice," Mr. Sadler said in a reference to Mr. Eltife, who has not served in the Legislature.
Mr. Sadler also said many voters rejected negative ads run against him by Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a group that favors Republicans and pushes for limits on civil lawsuits.
"A third-party group dropped about $400,000 worth of negative ads against me and we still maintained strong support from voters," he said. "We're very excited about where we are and where we're going in this race."
During the runoff, Mr. Eltife is expected to tout his endorsements from two of the state's top Republicans, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. He also led all candidates in the race in campaign contributions.
"We are obviously excited to be in the runoff," he said Tuesday night. "Over the last month, we have seen a tremendous response to our conservative record in the city of Tyler and our positive message for all of northeast Texas."
The Republican has pointed to his tenure as Tyler mayor – a period when the property tax rate and city expenditures were trimmed – as qualifying him for a seat in the Senate.
Competition in the race was fierce as Mr. Sadler, Mr. Eltife and Mr. Merritt spent heavily on television and radio ads to gain an edge in a contest that didn't start in earnest until after New Year's Day. Nearly a million dollars had been raised by the candidates in early January.
Mr. Eltife was favored by the state's Republican establishment and received hefty donations from some of the chief GOP contributors in Texas. His latest campaign finance reports showed contributions of nearly $640,000.
Because he was not targeted, he also benefited from the negative ads that were run by third party groups against Mr. Sadler and Mr. Merritt.
Mr. Sadler counted on support from teachers and other educators as well as Democrats in the area to push his vote total up. He raised $440,000 in campaign contributions, including donations from leading law firms in the state.
Responding to the attacks from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the Democrat ran one television commercial that featured three Republicans – President Bush, Mr. Perry and Mr. Ratliff – praising Mr. Sadler for his work on public education issues.
All three candidates stressed their ties to Mr. Ratliff, one of the most respected officeholders in the area for more than a decade. Mr. Ratliff declined to make an endorsement.
Out in West Texas' SD 31, the race to replace Teel Bivins, who resigned to accept the post of Ambassador to Sweden, was led by two Republicans, businessman Kirk Edwards of Odessa and former Amarillo Mayor Kel Seliger.
Seliger, spurred largely by overwhelming support in Randall and Potter Counties, surged to the head of the District 31 pack Tuesday night, claiming the lead spot by the end of the night.
"I'm very humbled and very excited by that result," Seliger said once a majority of precinct boxes had been counted.
His turnout, however, was not good enough to give him the majority needed to claim the seat outright. He grabbed 35.72 percent of the 69,410 total votes cast in the race, while Edwards claimed the runner-up position with 20.56 percent.
So the two candidates will meet in a run-off expected in late February.
Edwards, who on Monday was amongst the Midland-Odessa candidates predicting they would wind up in the run-off once votes were tallied, said he was nevertheless "tickled" by the results.
"We were just happy we ran the campaign exactly how we wanted to run it," he said. "We would have been pleased with whatever the turnout was."
Edwards, who won 44.24 percent of his hometown Ector County, buoyed his results by landing smaller counties like Howard, Andrews, Gaines, Crane and Cochran. He also consistently placed high in other counties, placing second in 11 counties -- including Midland. Overall, Edwards placed no worse in than fourth in any county in the district and placed third or higher in all but two.
"What I really believe is our message played well throughout the district, and that's important," Edwards said.