A handful of major Texas GOP primary races concluded March 4 without any candidate receiving 50% of the vote, meaning they head to a runoff in May. One of those, the race for comptroller, has since concluded amicably: state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran finished second to state Sen. Glenn Hegar on March 4. He withdrew from the runoff on Friday, conceding to Hegar. Hegar becomes the GOP nominee and given the deep red hue of Texas politics, is odds-on likely to be elected comptroller in the fall. Hilderbran’s move prevents Hegar from having to waste money on the runoff, and unites the GOP heading into the general election, at least as far as the comptroller race is concerned.
Another of the races that heads to a runoff is attorney general. Current AG Greg Abbott easily won the GOP primary for governor. Several Republicans including state Sen. Ken Paxton and state Sen. Dan Branch ran to succeed him, and Paxton finished first on March 4 with about 44% of the vote — just six points shy of the 50% needed to avoid the runoff. Branch finished second with about 33%. As things stand now, Paxton and Branch head to that May runoff. The third-place finisher, Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman, has already dropped out but has not endorsed either Paxton or Branch yet.
Fourteen conservative Republican officeholders have signed a letter asking Branch to replicate Hilderbran’s move, and drop out of the race to pave the way for Paxton to prepare for the general election in November. In the letter, the likes of state Reps. Phil King, Jodie Laubenberg, Van Taylor and others — serious conservatives, all — ask Branch to drop out for the good of the party. They argue that Branch would earn the respect and admiration of Texans by sparing the party a nasty runoff.
Beyond that argument is another, harder one: the numbers. Paxton won 19 of the top 20 counties in Texas. Paxton defeated Branch in his home county, Collin County, by over 20,000 votes. Based on turnout in previous runoff elections, contests in which turnout drops from the primary as only hardcore voters return, Paxton needs just about a third of his March 4 vote to return, while Branch needs nearly half of his — about 46%. That’s a tall order. It gets even taller when we look at what happened in Texas’ top three media markets: Paxton won North Texas 63-37, Houston 62-38, and San Antonio 53-47. Those results leave Branch with three tall mountains to climb. Paxton is also probably stronger in several areas with local runoffs, so if anything, his vote is more likely to come back for the May runoff in key areas than Branch’s.
Both Paxton and Branch are fine candidates with great records and bright futures. It’s pretty clear that, unless the dynamics of March 4′s primary radically shift, Paxton will win the runoff. But if he stays in the runoff, Branch runs the risk of dividing the party and he also runs the risk of alienating voters he will need if he plans to run for other offices, should he be recruited to run for Dallas mayor or Congress.