Being an incumbent did not prove to be an advantage in two local races last week.
In Tuesday’s primary runoff, both first-term state Rep. Scott Cosper and Precinct 2 Bell County Commissioner Tim Brown — a six-term incumbent — fell to politically untested challengers.
It’s hard to say what the key factors were in the two surprising outcomes, but momentum likely played a large part in both races.
A look at the numbers shows a huge vote swing between the March 6 Republican primary and Tuesday’s runoff.
In the House District 54 race, for example, Cosper outpolled Killeen veterinarian Dr. Brad Buckley by 320 votes in March, but lost last week by 1,260.
Perhaps more eye-opening is the fact that Cosper gained just 11 votes in the 2½ months since the primary — earning 3,174 votes in March and 3,185 votes in last week’s runoff.
Meanwhile, Buckley pulled in 4,445 votes last week compared to 2,854 in March, a whopping 1,591-vote increase.
The burning question is why.
Obviously, the March primary was a three-way race with Killeen veteran Larry Smith pulling in 1,390 votes, but it would be unreasonable to assume that all of Smith’s supporters later went for Buckley, or that all those voters even turned out to cast ballots in the runoff.
Similarly, Brown had a 498-vote advantage on local credit union president Bobby Whitson when the two faced off in March in the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, pulling in 1,957 votes to Whitson’s 1,459.
But the runoff vote tally was almost the reverse of the March contest, with Whitson drawing 1,804 votes to Brown’s 1,496 last week.
Again, there was a third candidate in the primary — Brit Owen of Salado, who pulled in 980 votes — but the size of the vote change in the past 10 weeks suggests other factors were at play.
In the House District 54 race between Buckley and Cosper, one determining factor may have been campaign spending — or least the perception of spending.
Cosper had the big cash advantage, raising nearly $247,000 between Feb. 25 and May 20, to Buckley’s $54,000. Cosper also outspent Buckley by a nearly 3-to-1 margin during the same period, reporting $143,000 in expenditures.
But a potential key to shifts in public opinion may not have been how much money each candidate received, but where it came from.
Since Feb. 25, 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 reported $54,115 in contributions in the same timeframe, but the single largest contribution came from the National Cutting Horse Association Texas Events PAC, which donated $25,000. All but $600 from the rest of Buckley’s contributions was donated by individuals.
The money and its source may not have been a major factor to most voters; it’s hard to say how people react to campaign fundraising reports.
But it is likely that voters had a strong reaction to the slew of negative campaign mailers sent out on behalf of the Cosper campaign by the Texas PAC groups in the closing weeks of the race.
Though Buckley had his share of negative flyers, the sheer volume of mail on behalf of the Cosper campaign that attacked Buckley on the issues of property tax reform, nursing home funding and his alleged lack of basic conservative values was staggering.
Fairly or not, some voters are bound to view an avalanche of primarily negative campaign literature as reflecting poorly on the candidate — and that may have been the case in this instance.
Another issue that may have made a difference in the final vote is accessibility.
Buckley attributed his runoff victory to his grass-roots approach to campaigning. Throughout the latter portion of the race, Buckley made countless campaign appearances across the district, along with his family members, or “Team Buckley,” as he calls them.
Buckley, who served previously as a Killeen school board member, said he won the race in old-fashioned style — “door-to-door and hug-to-hug.”
Though Cosper was fairly active in making appearances at venues across the district, he seemed to be less aggressive in neighborhood campaigning in the latter stages of the campaign, which may have been a factor in the outcome of the race.
In the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, Whitson was an active campaigner and ramped up the personal appearances, as well as advertising, in the race’s final weeks.
He focused on the incumbent’s relative lack of accessibility during his time as commissioner, claiming Brown rarely returned phone calls from constituents.
Brown explained he was often unavailable because of how hard he worked at his commissioner’s job, but it’s apparent that some of Whitson’s criticism stuck.
Bottom line, most voters want to know where their candidates stand on the issues, meet them in person and take the measure of the man — or woman. When candidates depend more on faceless flyers to carry their message or try to let their resumes speak for themselves, that can be costly.
Factors such as money, mailers and momentum no doubt played a big role in the runoff races’ outcome last week.
But it may also come down to the fact that voters are in the mood for change — and that’s something that puts all incumbents in jeopardy.
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s voting, Brown expressed disappointment and said he felt that he let his constituents down. Cosper stressed unity in a Facebook post and was magnanimous in defeat, according to Buckley.
But while Whitson — with no November opponent — can look forward to assuming a seat on the commissioner’s court in January, Buckley must get ready to gear up for the fall campaign for the District 54 seat.
In that race, he’ll face off against Democrat Kathy Richerson, a rural Bell County Realtor and rancher who had no primary opponent.
Early on, the race would appear to favor Buckley, as the district tends to vote Republican.
But elections this year have been anything but predictable.
Just ask two of our departing incumbents.