Same song, second verse.
For the second election in a row, the Republican nominee for the District 54 state representative’s post will be determined in a runoff.
And for the second straight election, former Killeen Mayor Scott Cosper was the top vote-getter in the primary but didn’t pull in enough support to avoid a face-off in May against the second-place finisher.
In 2016, Dr. Austin Ruiz, a Killeen optometrist and political newcomer, took Cosper to the limit in the primary, winning the Bell County vote but falling short in Lampasas County. That same scenario held true in the runoff, with Cosper ultimately defeating Ruiz by just 39 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast.
Now, after his election to the Statehouse and a first legislative session under his belt, Cosper is looking to retain his seat — but again, it may not be easy.
Despite a well-funded and aggressive primary campaign, Cosper defeated veterinarian Dr. Brad Buckley by just 299 votes last week. No doubt, Larry Smith, the third candidate in the race— as he was in 2016 — had something to do with that, as he garnered about 14 percent of the votes cast.
Still, it’s difficult to say which candidate Smith drew more votes from — Cosper or Buckley.
The task ahead for both remaining candidates is to hold on to the voters they attracted in the primary while also grabbing the lion’s share of voters who supported Smith.
That may be more easily said than done.
First of all, turnout for runoff elections is generally lower than that for a primary. For example, in 2016, 10,802 Bell County voters cast ballots in the District 54 Republican primary. But in the runoff, just 3,879 county voters took part.
Obviously, both Cosper and Buckley have their work cut out for them when it comes to keeping their bases energized over the next seven weeks.
But just as importantly, both candidates will have to work to earn the backing of Smith’s supporters. If the 1,390 voters who went for Smith were to break for either remaining candidate, it would swing the election.
It’s fair to ask why Republican voters didn’t go more strongly for Cosper, who had a moderately successful first term in Austin and was running against untested challengers.
After all, District 55 state Rep. Hugh Shine of Temple, who also faced two primary challengers, took in 60 percent of the vote and avoided a runoff.
No doubt, many Killeen-area voters felt Cosper’s five terms on the city council, plus his term as the city’s mayor and stint in the Legislature made him the obvious choice to fill the District 54 seat.
Still, some prospective voters may have been conflicted over the fact that Cosper’s term as mayor ended just a few weeks before then-Interm City Manager Ann Farris presented a city budget that contained a projected $8 million shortfall. Just four months before, in February 2016, Cosper had told the Herald the city’s finances were in excellent shape and that he met with then-City Manager Glenn Morrison weekly.
Morrison retired suddenly in April 2016 amid questions about the city’s financial health.
Certainly, Cosper had a rather successful first term in Austin as a legislator — including being named to the prestigious House Appropriations Committee. But he has generally kept a low profile, unlike Rep. Shine, who regularly held “Rise and Shine” town hall-format meetings to inform residents about the goings-on in Austin.
Nonetheless, Cosper helped draft a 2018-19 state budget that was balanced and allocated more state money to local needs.
During his first term, Cosper co-authored nine House bills that won passage, and sponsored or co-sponsored another 11 successful Senate bills. He also went to bat for local cities that are not receiving adequate compensation for state-mandated property tax exemptions for disabled veterans.
His signature legislation was a bill he authored that reconciled state regulations with federal law on payday lending to service members, which was signed into law in June.
For his part, Buckley largely ran an image-oriented primary campaign.
He characterized himself as a conservative and a Christian but didn’t delve into specifics often when it came to spelling out his policy stances — especially in the hot-button areas of property tax reform and school finances.
With deep Killeen roots, an established veterinary practice and strong local business and education ties —including serving on the Killeen school board from 2000 to 2005 before moving to Salado — Buckley certainly has the name recognition to make for a viable candidacy.
And he worked hard to make himself known to voters across the district — a factor that no doubt helped him edge Cosper in Lampasas County voting last week.
But during the primary campaign, Buckley did little to distinguish himself from Cosper on philosophy or policy — giving undecided Republican voters little to go on.
Unless Buckley can put some separation between himself and Cosper in these areas in the coming weeks, it’s fair to ask how he can convince undecided voters that it’s better to support someone without experience in Austin over someone who is already there.
Obviously, the next few weeks will be crucial for both candidates.
Buckley and Cosper will have to analyze the primary voting patterns and figure out where to best target their resources and which issues to focus on.
They’ll have to shake more hands, hand out more campaign literature, buy more ads and speak to more gatherings.
If that means the district’s voters have a better idea who the candidates are and what they represent by the time May 22 rolls around, these extra two months of campaigning will have been well worth it.
For the voters, it’s a chance to listen, learn and head back to the polls.