Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Joe Cotten

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.

Chron overview of Ag Commissioner race

It’s mostly about Kinky and pot, because what else is there to talk about?

Democrat Kinky Friedman is attempting to add a little spice to the crowded agriculture commissioner race by being the lone candidate to advocate legalizing marijuana and tapping it as a new state cash crop.

Of the eight candidates jostling to replace Republican Todd Staples as agriculture commissioner, only Friedman of Kerrville supports legalizing marijuana and taxing it for state revenue. He wants Texas to move quickly before other states follow Washington and Colorado’s lead and legalize the drug for recreational use, which could deprive the Lone Star State of potential revenue, like the $578 million in tax revenue that Colorado expects from first-year sales.

“Texas will be the dinosaur dragged in by the tail,” Friedman said. “We will be the caboose on the train.”

Friedman’s comments on legalizing marijuana follow those voiced by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who called for legalizing the drug for medical use and possibly decriminalizing it.

And Republican Gov. Rick Perry who told the World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he signed laws putting the state on the path to decriminalization, and suggested that all states, under the 10th Amendment, have the right to decide how to handle the herb.

But other agricultural commissioner candidates from both major political parties were reluctant to voice those types of sentiments, preferring to focus on top priorities like illegal immigration and improved water infrastructure.

“Pot doesn’t really matter,” said Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III, another Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner. “What matters is if you have any water.”

Cleburne farmer Jim Hogan, also seeking the Democratic primary nod, said he understands the arguments for legalization, and he said he could favor a shift in emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation for Texas drug users.

“If I was a judge and a woman (charged with possession of marijuana) had three kids, I couldn’t send her to prison,” Hogan said. “I could have her rehabilitated, maybe.”

None of the five Republicans in the race gave support to Perry’s comments or bucked their party’s hard line stance against drug possession or legalization.

I ran interviews last week with Friedman and Fitzsimons. Pot is a worthwhile issue to discuss, and I support Friedman’s position on it, but as Fitzsimons says it’s all secondary to water. Sure would have been nice to have seen what some of the Republican candidates have to say about that in a story like this. It also might have been worthwhile to mention the Republican candidates’ self-interested hypocrisy on receiving federal agriculture subsidies. But hey, no one’s really paying attention to a race like this anyway, am I right?