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The name game, primary style

As we know, Democrats have had some issues in recent primaries with random results based on low information and name variations. Turns out Republicans have those issues, too.


This year, names may have also factored in other races, including the Republican race for agriculture commissioner.

The two most recognizable names in the race, former state Reps. Sid Miller and Tommy Merritt, will head to a runoff. But, surprisingly, Joe Cotten, a Dallas financial adviser who raised no campaign funds aside from a $10,000 loan to himself, trailed Republican state party attorney Eric Opiela by only 3 percent of the vote. And Cotten easily beat Uvalde Mayor J Allen Carnes, who had the backing of the Texas Farm Bureau and the family of former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe.

The name “Cotten” was no doubt a blessing for an agriculture-focused candidate, but Opiela has another theory. “It’s deeper than that,” he said. “There is a fairly famous restaurant in South Texas by the name of Joe Cotten’s Barbecue.”


“It’s frustrating,” said Opiela, who put more than $1 million of his own money into the race and appeared in television ads in major media markets across the state. “We had a lot of contested races on the ballot, and it was very difficult for the voters to sort the wheat from the chaff, let’s just put it that way.”

In some instances, names might hurt a candidate’s chances. Consider the case of Malachi Boyuls and his occasionally mispronounced surname.

On Tuesday, the Republican candidate for the Railroad Commission received just 10 percent of the vote, the lowest total among four candidates — former state Rep. Wayne Christian, Ryan Sitton and Becky Berger. That’s despite the fact that Boyuls spent more than three times what Christian and Berger did combined.

Boyuls, an oil and gas investor, said he wasn’t sure whether his name doomed his campaign. He initially thought it might help.

“It is unique and it’s a book in the Bible, and with so many names on the ballot, I thought that it wouldn’t get lost on the ballot,” he said.

It’s hard to know how much effect a name by itself might have on a candidate’s success. There are a ton of possible factors, and separating out their influence is highly non-trivial. I’ll bet it’s a great opportunity for research, if some enterprising PoliSci prof wants to look into it. I think the key to this is that in a primary there are no partisan identifiers to help voters draw easy distinctions between candidates. If Malachi Boyuls were the Republican nominee for Railroad Commissioner, it’s probable he’d lose a few votes to Steve Brown, but not too much. People would still know he’s the Republican, and that would have a much stronger effect on their vote than the novelty of his name. But in a primary, or a non-partisan race, in the absence of campaign activity or sufficient interest in that particular office then all you’ve got is the name. It’s not always clear how that will play out – I still have no idea why Mark Thompson would have had an advantage in the 2008 Railroad Commissioner Democratic primary over Dale Henry and Art Hall – but there’s no doubt that in last year’s HCC Trustee race, Dave Wilson with an R next to his name would have lost to Bruce Austin with a D next to his. Not that I want races like those or City of Houston races to be partisan – I don’t – but it’s one of the reasons why I don’t support making judicial races non-partisan. It won’t drive out the big money that we all deplore, and it would take away the one objective piece of information people do have about most candidates.

Anyway, I’d say the bigger factor in these races was the obsessive focus on guns and abortion by the frontrunners. Qualifications didn’t mean much, if anything. Of course, the leading candidates here aren’t offensive to Republican voters the way Kesha Rogers is to Democrats, so it’s not that big a deal for them. But at least it’s nice to know we’re not alone.

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One Comment

  1. Mainstream says:

    The more familiar, most Anglicized name often has an advantage. Chris Daniel over Court Koenning, Al (Aloysius) Hoang over Nghi Ho, John Devine over David Medina. I recall that Cathy Heramsichuk lost but after changing her name to Cochrane won on the statewide court of criminal appeals. Laryssa Korduba Hrncir shortened her name this year on the ballot; Meca Walker became M.L. Walker; Judge (Ravi) Sandhill uses only his initials R.K. on the ballot, as does R.W. (Rasuali) Bray.

    Definitely helps to have a short, familiar name.