After a hard-fought two months leading up to Tuesday’s GOP runoff, the Texas House District 54 race has pivoted to the general phase with two fresh faces vying for voter support.
On Tuesday, Dr. Brad Buckley, 51, a Killeen veterinarian who lives in Salado, pulled off an authoritative upset of incumbent Rep. Scott Cosper, 47, despite being outgunned in campaign fundraising and not running on a platform far to Cosper’s ideological right.
Buckley’s win — capturing 18 of 20 voting precincts in Bell County — was overwhelming, particularly considering Cosper is a former mayor and City Council member in Killeen with support from local leaders.
Buckley also swept to victory with 1,556 votes, or 59.3 percent of the electorate, in Lampasas County, where Cosper won running away during the November 2016 general election.
What factors surrounded Buckley’s upset of Cosper?
In the race’s homestretch, hundreds of thousands of dollars flooded into Cosper’s campaign from groups tied to statehouse leadership and Austin lobbyists, and out went a series of attack mailers, TV spots and signs.
In addition, Cosper had a controversial past in Killeen, where he had been recalled from the council in 2011 over public fallout from a former city manager’s buyout agreement. Then, Cosper was mayor from 2014-2016, when financial instability led to an $8 million projected shortfall and public outrage.
Throughout the campaign, Buckley did not address Cosper’s past as a city official and attributed his win to personal style with voters that included door-to-door campaigning and the strength of his platform.
Tuesday’s runoff showed one underlying truth: More money does not always win an election.
Between Feb. 25 and May 20, Cosper reported $143,042.24 in expenditures on his campaign — roughly three times the amount Buckley’s campaign spent.
In terms of how far Cosper’s money went in the runoff, his campaign spent roughly $44.91 per vote. Buckley, meanwhile, spent $10.49 per vote with far fewer mailers, television and newspaper ads.
Cosper did not respond to Herald calls or emailed questions since Tuesday.
In terms of monetary and in-kind contributions, the difference between the candidates was even more stark.
Between Feb. 25 and May 20, Cosper raised $246,819.05 in contributions, buying him a single voter for every $77.49 raised.
By contrast, Buckley raised $54,115 — a ratio of $12.17 per voter.
Underscoring that fundraising disparity was the source of each candidate’s war chest.
Between Jan. 26 and May 20, Cosper received $191,400 in contributions from the Texas House Leadership Fund and Associated Republicans of Texas Campaign Fund — two PACs primarily funded by Texas House Speaker Joe Straus in 2018.
Buckley, a former Killeen school district board member, reported $54,115 in contributions between Feb. 25 and May 20. Of that total, the single largest contribution came from the National Cutting Horse Association Texas Events PAC, which donated $25,000 to Buckley’s campaign in three payments.
All but $600 from the rest of Buckley’s contributions was donated by individuals.
All that Austin money flowing into Cosper’s campaign coffers resulted in a swarm of mailers to district voters that increased in venom late in the race.
The Associated Republicans of Texas Campaign Fund, in particular, issued mailers with some of the most direct attacks against Buckley, including claims that he was a “liberal Republican” and “ridiculed” Cosper’s platform on ending state unfunded mandates.
In the week leading up to the runoff, Buckley issued some attack ads himself, tying Cosper to Rep. John Zerwas, a candidate for Texas House speaker who Buckley called a “liberal,” and saying Cosper “wants Texas to be more like California.”
In response to the vigor of the back and forth, Cosper penned an “open letter” to Buckley that ran on mailers and in the Herald and said Buckley had trafficked in “undocumented claims and outright lies” in the late stages of the campaign.
“If this is how you plan to conduct yourself if you win this election, our district will achieve very little in the Texas House, because honor and integrity still carry a lot of weight in that hallowed chamber,” Cosper wrote.
Buckley said Thursday he had spoken with Cosper after the race and had a positive conversation about working together moving forward.
“We’ll be working a lot to get everybody on the same team,” Buckley said. “Scott was very magnanimous to get behind me and support me.”
As the two Republicans slugged it out in Tuesday’s runoff, Democratic challenger Kathy Richerson was taking time to train with the Democratic Party in Austin and watch the election from the sidelines.
“I wasn’t too surprised,” Richerson told the Herald on Thursday. “(Buckley’s) been very visible, and people seem to like him — he’s actually my veterinarian, too.”
Richerson, a retired Realtor who raises goats in rural Bell County, said she wasn’t overly familiar with Buckley’s platform, but said their party politics would likely clash in the leadup to the Nov. 6 election.
“People describe him to me as a moderate Republican, but there are things as a Republican that are opposite of what I believe,” she said. Richerson, a self-described “progressive,” said she supported “Medicare for all,” was against open carry and sought greater access to Planned Parenthood and state support for public education.
To spur voter support in District 54, Richerson said she is not relying on the Bell County Democratic Party, which publicly shunned her in January, and county chairwoman Chris Rosenberg.
“I am the candidate, but I don’t know that people change their mind about how they feel about things,” Richerson said. “But (Rosenberg’s) working hard to get Democrats elected.”
Rosenberg said Thursday the county supported all Democrats on the ballot.
“The Bell County Democratic Party’s mission is to get out the vote for all our Democratic nominees up and down the ballot,” Rosenberg said in an email.
Rosenberg said Tuesday’s result showed District 54 voters were ready for change, potentially setting the stage for a competitive race.
“Tuesday night was a true break with tradition: the House District 54 Republican incumbent lost his bid for re-election to a grassroots campaign, and a Bell County Commissioner lost his seat after serving six terms,” Rosenberg said. “Something is happening here: the primary runoff election of 2018 proved incontrovertibly that Bell County is ready for change.”
Buckley didn’t directly address Richerson in his comments to the Herald but said he was still campaigning on the platform of school finance and property tax reform, water rights and limited government. Buckley said he would spend the next few months continuing to study the issues throughout the district and be prepared to continue reaching out to voters.
“We can’t take anything for granted,” he said. “If you rest on your laurels, bad things happen.”