Don Huffines Wins Best Challenger Campaign

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By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

The biennial Capitol Inside Best of the Primary Election honors will be dribbled out this time around in daily installments that focus on individual categories instead of being crammed into one massive package like we’ve done in the past.

The project – as usual – will recognize the most outstanding performances by an incumbent, a challenger and candidates in open statewide and legislative races that were settled in the March 4 primary election without the need for runoffs. The awards this week will be reserved for candidates who won outright in round one while the accolades for overtime victories will be dished out after the May 27 primary runoff election in Texas.

These laurels are subjective and based on the observations of this veteran journalist and the collective opinion of a small sample of lobbyists, political consultants and elected officials with countless years of experience in the heart of the Texas political scene. Politics is an art unless you’re a pollster who makes educated guesses based on a process that’s referred to in higher education as a science. So there is no margin for error or accuracy in the way the kudos are derived here.

In light of significant gains that conservatives and their tea party friends recorded in the March election in battles at the state level, Capitol Inside is leading off the post-primary vote salute with the best campaign by a challenger who knocked off an incumbent a week ago in the opening round of the 2014 elections in the Lone Star State.

And the winner is …

Don Huffines – Best Challenger Campaign

There were essentially two kinds of conservative candidates who fared well in GOP primary races in the world of Texas politics this month. There were those who ran behind the tea party brand and won races outright or advanced to runoffs regardless of whether they’d had good, lackluster or relatively non-existent campaigns.

And then there was Don Huffines. A Dallas area resident who’s a residential suburban developer, Huffines clearly got a boost from the fact that he owned the right lane for all practical purposes as a state Senate challenger who chose a battle with a powerful incumbent for his debut as a candidate. Huffines knew he could expect to score every conservative endorsement in sight the moment he launched a bid to unseat Republican State Senator John Carona in a district that the incumbent had represented for 17 years. But Huffines – a product of a wealthy family whose members have been involved in GOP politics at the state level as perennial big donors and occasional appointees – understood that it would take a lot more than ideological positioning and good timing to compete in the ring with a political brawler who’d been one of the most effective tacticians ever under the pink granite dome. Carona on one hand might have seemed vulnerable to a degree as a result of a relatively moderate voting record and strong relations that he’d developed with colleagues on both sides of the aisle without the slightest regard for partisan politics. Carona had been a Republican who was unapologetically independent and always would be. While Carona had the potential to be badly out of shape as a campaigner as a legislator who’d never had a primary opponent in 22 years of House and Senate races, he’d never been challenged by another Republican mainly because there weren’t any in town who thought they could beat him no matter how hard they tried until Huffines surfaced in the Senate District 16 race last fall.

Huffines’ camp correctly assumed that Carona would take nothing for granted and might even relish the thought of an interim wrestling match given the intensely competitive nature he’d demonstrated as a legislator who’d sponsored and passed more legislation last year than any other Senate member and made it look easy doing so. Huffines and the strategists he enlisted for the Senate race were all savvy enough to realize that the challenger in SD 16 couldn’t simply hitch his star to the tea party wave and ride it to glory. So the Huffines team hammered out a plan that it knew it would have to execute fairly flawlessly against an incumbent who wasn’t going to do down without the fight of his political life.

Employing a mix of proven Texas talent and consultants from out-of-state, Huffines’ camp customized the campaign for the unique circumstances surrounding it in a district that isn’t nearly as Republican as the areas that Carona’s GOP colleagues represent. With initial polls showing Carona with 65 percent support compared to a mere 3 percent for Huffines, the challenger spent a substantial chunk of his campaign budget before the Thanksgiving holidays on positive television advertising and mail designed to build the foundation for name identification as the necessary starting point. Huffines introduced himself to voters as a conservative outsider who’d been a successful businessman – and he stayed on the high road in a highly disciplined fashion all the way into late January before taking the gloves off for a fight that was destined to be as brutal as it would be expensive.

The Huffines attack strategy revolved on the premise that Carona had been a liberal legislator by GOP standards in Texas. That was the bad news. The worse news was that Carona had been a corrupt public official as well according to the Huffines campaign. Huffines sought to throw water on Carona’s image as a lawmaker with a tireless work ethics when the challenger finally went negative for the first time with a web site that accused the incumbent of missing more committee votes than his fellow senators. The attack site showed a Carona caricature out on a lake in a row boat amid the assertion that he’d gone fishing many times when the folks back home had been led to believe he was down in Austin working hard for them. The Huffines campaign hung the liberal albatross around Carona’s neck with ads on how he’d co-sponsored a bill that would have created a freeway named after President Barack Obama in his home base – and the challenger reinforced the left-of-center depiction by pointing to a Rice University study that ranked Carona as the least conservative GOP senator in the state.

Huffines’ camp fired the most potentially lethal torpedo when it suggested in direct mail drops and TV commercials that Carona had helped Senate Democrats raise political money as a way to ensure that he’d have their support on bills that would benefit his real estate management company without significant revisions to laws governing home owners associations. In the simple minds of most voters, that’s the long way of saying bribery. Never mind that no prosecutor had ever insinuated anything remotely resembling criminal wrongdoing in Carona’s case.

Carona and Huffines both poured massive amounts of personal money into campaigns that had raised $3.4 million and $2.4 million respectively heading into the final week before the March 4 primary election. While Carona appeared to pump the vast majority of the money he’d generated into traditional broadcast advertising, Huffines earmarked about 15 percent of his campaign budget for an online digital effort that aimed to spread the word about his bid on YouTube, Facebook and other social media outlets that have become the most effective way of reaching younger voters.

Carona nonetheless remained guardedly confident on the eve of the primary election despite polling that suggested that he could be on the verge of defeat in a very close race. It was a rare prediction that proved to be off base for an incumbent whose long and extremely successful career came crashing down when Huffines claimed victory with almost 51 percent of the vote in a race for a seat that Democrats might have had an outside shot at winning if they’d had any clue that Carona might lose in the first round.

Huffines was courted for the Texas Senate race by conservative leaders and tea party groups that applauded the criticism he leveled during the campaign at big special interests and the significant clout they wield at the Capitol. But Huffines has been criticized himself since the election for suggesting that he planned to solicit late-train donations from lobbyists and groups that had backed the incumbent. So the transition from private citizen to public servant already appears to be under way in earnest.