The campaign for the Republican nomination for the Texas House District 54 is winding up the same way it started.
Each candidate is trying to convince voters he is more conservative than the other.
Initially, at least, it was a matter of subtle differences on the issues.
Incumbent state Rep. Scott Cosper of Killeen and challenger Dr. Brad Buckley, a local veterinarian, have exchanged volleys regarding their respective stances on property tax reform, a bill to provide money for non-Medicare-funded nursing homes and support for outgoing Speaker of the House Joe Straus and Gov. Greg Abbott.
Both men argue that their positions in these areas make them the most conservative — and therefore, the best — representative for Central Texas residents.
But what started as a polite, respectful exchange at the Herald’s candidate forum back in late January has escalated into a testy war of words — with incendiary campaign flyers flooding district residents’ mailboxes and edgy newspaper ads greeting local readers daily as Tuesday’s runoff nears.
It all came to a head last week when Cosper took out a half-page ad to address “an open letter” to Buckley, in which he charges the challenger with attacking him and other elected leaders with what he terms undocumented claims and outright lies.
Buckley has launched his own salvos, with a recent flyer that charges Cosper with giving up early on the fight for a property tax reform bill last session and claiming endorsements he doesn’t have — all without specifically calling him out by name.
That same flyer claims that only Buckley can be trusted to vote for a true conservative leader as House Speaker — an obvious swipe at Straus, whose policies have been at odds with those of the governor. It’s also a shot at Cosper’s association with Rep. John Zerwas — whom Buckley calls a liberal. Zerwas is seeking to become the next House speaker.
So, it’s come to this.
Obviously, the House seat is worth far more than the $41,000 salary the state pays legislators for a two-year term in office.
Cosper desperately wants to stay in office, and there are several political action groups, many affiliated with Straus, that have put up some serious cash to help him do just that.
One such group — the Associated Republicans of Texas — gave Cosper more than $50,000 between Jan. 26 and Feb. 24, including nearly $30,000 in mailers and advertising.
The House Leadership Fund — another Straus-funded group — contributed an additional $42,600 to Cosper during that time.
In his most recent campaign finance report, Cosper acknowledged receiving more than $70,000 in in-kind contributions from the primarily Straus-funded Associated Republicans for Texas Campaign Fund, in 2018. The money went toward political mailers and TV ads on behalf of Cosper’s campaign.
For his part, Cosper disputed the reported Straus connection with the Associated Republicans of Texas, claiming that ART is a 40-year-old conservative group with an established track record of supporting Republican candidates.
Buckley received no money from either of these groups and has gone to great lengths to tout his independence from political action committees. His campaign reports show that all but $600 in donations have come from small, individual contributions — with the exception of a huge $25,000 donation from the National Cutting Horse Association.
But no matter where the money is coming from, it’s obvious much of it has been directed toward flyers and advertising over the past two weeks.
The big question is whether it will pay off.
If the early-voting numbers are any indication, interest in the election is high.
In Bell County, 6,460 voters went to the polls in the early voting period that ended Friday, eclipsing the 2016 early-voting total of 5,915 by more than 500 votes. Like 2016, the District 54 race features a GOP runoff, but unlike 2016, some Republican Bell County voters are also weighing in on the runoff between incumbent Tim Brown and challenger Bobby Whitson for the Precinct 2 county commissioners seat. Since that is a hotly contested race as well, it may be inflating the voting numbers.
Likewise, voting numbers are up sharply in Lampasas County, where the margin for Cosper proved the difference in the 2016 GOP runoff with Killeen optometrist Austin Ruiz. This time around, 1,887 voters went to the polls early, compared to 1,096 ballots cast during the early-voting period in 2016 — a jump of nearly 800 ballots.
But like Bell County, Lampasas County GOP voters are deciding other runoffs, including races for county judge and Precinct 2 commissioner.
With time winding down to Tuesday’s final voting, the District 54 candidates have to decide where best to dedicate their resources for a final push.
Buckley came out ahead in the primary voting in Lampasas County and has been spending a significant amount of time there in recent weeks, as well as in Salado, his town of residence. He said Friday he is campaigning in all areas of the district.
Cosper, who won Bell County by about 300 votes in March, appears to have honed in on Harker Heights, taking out two large ads in Friday’s Harker Heights Herald, a publication of KDH Media Group.
In addition, the Cosper campaign had a large tent erected near the Harker Heights early-voting site Friday, staffed by several supporters.
It’s all pointing to a close contest this week — possibly mirroring the 2016 runoff that saw Cosper edge Ruiz by just 39 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast.
For those still unsure about how to vote in Tuesday’s runoffs, the Herald offers candidate information, video interviews and archived articles from the campaign online at kdhnews.com/centerforpolitics. The site also contains information for races from around the area, including polling locations.
Heading into Election Day, it still may be difficult for voters to discern whether Buckley or Cosper is the more conservative candidate.
And frankly, to many voters, it may not matter all that much.
But one thing the recent barrage of campaign flyers has established is how each candidate looks in a cowboy hat.
This being Texas, that could swing a few votes. And who knows — that just may prove to be the difference in what has become a very odd race.