The special runoff election for the two vacant State Senate seats has been set for February 17. Republican candidate Kevin Eltife, who trailed Democrat Paul Sadler by about three percentage points in the open election to replace the retiring Bill Ratliff, has gotten a couple of boosts to his campaign, the biggest of which was Ratliff's endorsement, albeit a qualified one:
In District 1, Ratliff endorsed former Tyler Mayor [Kevin] Eltife this week, after praising both candidates as "intelligent, principled, and honorable." Ratliff said he was endorsing his fellow Republican as closer in "basic political ideology," although he conditioned his support on Eltife's rejection of "personal attacks" by "third party organizations." In the first round, both [Paul] Sadler, a former state representative from Henderson, and current state Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, were targeted in attack ads funded by the Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Americans for Job Security. The latter is an insurance-industry front group with ties to Austin GOP operatives and, through them, Gov. Perry. Sadler was portrayed as an unscrupulous "trial lawyer," and Merritt – who, like Ratliff, opposed the GOP leadership on congressional redistricting – was attacked for supposedly supporting tax hikes. Eltife said he had no connection to the ads and that he'd asked that the governor use his influence to have them pulled down.
Ratliff said that he was as offended by the attack ads "as I was when I took on FreePAC and its unscrupulous campaign tactics a few years ago." In the 2000 legislative campaign, the hard-right FreePAC political action committee attacked moderate Republicans – including both Ratliff and Merritt – as soft on gays and abortion rights. Ratliff said he had received assurances from Eltife that he would join Ratliff in defending Sadler against any new attacks. "The choice is between two good and honorable men," said Ratliff, "both of whom would devote themselves to the citizens of Northeast Texas." The winner will serve out the remaining two years of Ratliff's term.
In the earlier race, Eltife’s staff said they knew nothing about attack ads against Sadler and state Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, until they saw them on television. They claimed no responsibility for the ads.
Eltife spokesperson Chuck Anderson said that Eltife did not care for the ads but had made no attempt to get the organizations to pull them.
"The Texas Senate is about this close right now, and the balance of power is at stake," Texans for Lawsuit Reform consultant Chuck McDonald said Wednesday. "And the trial lawyers think they have a good candidate."
The two candidates in a Feb. 17 runoff to replace retired Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, are Republican Kevin Eltife and Sadler, the sole Democrat in the race and overall winner with 27,300 votes to Eltife's 24,900. During the regular campaign that ended with the Jan. 20 election, Sadler came under heavy fire — there were TV and radio commercials and direct mail — from McDonald's group.
That third-party incursion, and an attack on Republican candidate Tommy Merritt by a Washington-based group that sparked a criminal complaint, led Ratliff to make one condition to his endorsement of Eltife as his successor. That condition was that Eltife denounce any third-party organizations that launch personal or unfounded attacks.
McDonald and Texans for Lawsuit Reform communications vice president Ken Hoagland said their ads were neither personal nor unfounded. The ads criticized Sadler's voting record while in the House from 1991 to 2003, the two told the Longview News-Journal editorial board.
"We respect Bill Ratliff, and we're going to really try to honor what he said," Hoagland said. "We're going to have more stuff in this campaign."
McDonald added, "I guess the only answer is it's our intention to remain active in this campaign in the interest of our local and statewide supporters who care about some of the issues at stake. We're a statewide organization, and we have support in every county that's in the district. And we do have a responsibility to our membership."
Sadler worked with Ratliff on major education reform when the two lawmakers chaired education committees — Ratliff in the Texas Senate and Sadler in the Texas House of Representatives.
“I was surprised because Sen. Ratliff had told people he would not endorse a candidate,” Sadler said, “and I was surprised a week or so ago when Sen. Ratliff told me he was going to be a lobbyist.”
“Those are the two biggest surprises I have ever had,” the Democrat said.
Sadler said he appreciated Ratliff’s comments about his qualifications as well as those about third party negative campaigning.
“But I wonder where he (Ratliff) was three weeks ago when the attack ads about me came out,” Sadler said. “I had asked Kevin Eltife then to disclaim them, but he would not, and I think it is a little opportunistic to do so now.”
Merritt's endorsement was far more succinct than Ratliff's and did not mention Sadler.
"I think that's not really relevant," Merritt said of the attack ads. His campaign had earlier suggested Eltife and Gov. Rick Perry, who endorsed Eltife, "knew where the ads were coming from" - a reference to Americans for Job Security, a group that attacked Merritt in radio ads.
"I'm working and will continue to work to elect Kevin Eltife to the Senate," Merritt said Wednesday. "I have no comment about any other person, what they may say or think."
In a letter to Eltife, Merritt wrote that he was "proud" to endorse his former opponent and praised him for "great leadership" as Tyler mayor. Merritt is running in the March primary to retain his seat in House District 7, which includes Gregg County and part of Smith County.
I'll close by noting that Texas Democratic Party chair Charles Soechting has charged Governor Perry with favoring Eltife in the first election. Soechting wrote the following in an open letter to Perry:
There is compelling evidence that your favored candidate in the first round of voting was aware well in advance of other candidates and the general public that you had decided on January 20 as the date. Direct mail on behalf of your candidate began arriving in voters' mailboxes fewer than 48 hours after your public announcement. This was an impossibly short time to have designed, printed, and mailed the pieces under the schedule that pertained to all other candidates -- including those from your own party such as Tommy Merritt and Jerry Yost.