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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

Victory in Hale Center: Keeping Laney's Seat

Why do Democrats continue to win a seat that is tailored for Republicans? Texas House of Representative District 85 voted 76% for George Bush in 2004, yet that house seat has been in Democrats' hands since 2001. Surprisingly, Speaker Pete Laney won his bids for re-election by comfortable margins, winning with 59% of the votes in 2004. Republicans and Democrats both felt District 85 would return to the GOP, but things got more complex once Speaker Laney announced that he was not running for re-election.

A new face appeared on the scene, a young Republican named Jim Landtroop. Little was known about his background, other than he was an A&M graduate. He announced his candidacy for the office early in 2005 after having been very active in the 2004 election, even going to the Republican National Convention as a delegate. He campaigned all over the district, raising money as well as getting endorsements from statewide Republican elected officials. Landtroop was poised to run a strong campaign against Speaker Laney when Laney announced he was not running for re-election.
With Laney out of the race, Landtroop appeared to be the choice of the Republican leadership and financiers. Endorsements and large contributions came in from all over the state. The Landtroop campaign was effective in branding his primary challenger, Drew Mouton, as a "trial lawyer" and easily won the Republican primary.

The GOP and most of the political experts felt so comfortable with a Republican win in the district that the race did not even appear on the radar screen as one to watch. Yet, Landtroop misread the political landscape. He alienated much of the local Republican leadership. He also positioned himself in the pro-voucher camp on education - an issue that did not sit well with the educators and other voters in the district. He received thousands of dollars from pro-voucher supporters Bob Perry, Dr. James Leininger of San Antonio and their PAC, Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Landtroop based his campaign on his Christian principles, a tactic that resonated well with the conservative Christian population of the district.

On the other side of the aisle was Joe Heflin, County Judge for Crosby County. He was the offertory Democrat that was supposed to lose District 85. Except somebody forgot to tell him. Joe began his campaign early by traveling throughout the district getting acquainted with the voters.

After the primary, Joe chose an interesting political strategy. He began enlisting the support of Republicans, particularly those in Hale County who had been alienated by Landtroop. He also went after the Republicans in Howard County who were upset with the tactics Landtroop used against Drew Mouton.

The pivotal point in the campaign came when the Texas Farm Bureau endorsed Joe Heflin. The GOP suddenly realized they had a real race on their hands. Joe then received the endorsement of Parent Pac, a political action committee begun by parents and others interested in public education. He likewise gained the endorsement of every school superintendent except two or three of the more than thirty in the district. Then, Speaker Pete Laney made a formal endorsement of Joe. Local support from Charlie Stenholm and David Counts, who is quite popular in Jones, Fisher and Howard Counties, soon followed.

With this growing support for Joe, the GOP and Landtroop's camp took the campaign to another level. They hired a firm to investigate Joe Heflin's background. Going back to the beginning of his law career the only thing they could find was his defense of court appointed criminal defendants. Shortly before the early voting started they launched a massive TV, radio and mail campaign portraying Joe as unfit for public office because he provided legal services to drug dealers, murderers and prostitutes.

Landtroop also made tactical errors. He told a group that he strongly supported Tom Craddick, who is very unpopular in the northern part of the district. He then told another group that he favored the Trans Texas Corridor, an idea every farmer and rancher in Texas fears. He flip-flopped on his school voucher position saying he now opposed vouchers in West Texas. Finally, he withdrew from a long scheduled debate in Big Spring only weeks before the date. In a fax to the Big Spring Chamber of Commerce, Kevin Brannon, Landtroop's paid consultant and an Austin based Republican activist, said Landtroop could not get a fair hearing in a debate in Big Spring because questions were being raised about the massive amounts of money he was receiving from out of the district.

Joe eventually responded to the smear campaign with press conferences, TV and newspaper ads defending his law practice. Joe pointed out that school voucher supporters attempted to buy this election. Speaker Pete Laney stood alongside Joe with many other respected community leaders. A massive letter to the editor campaign was launched the week before the election. Many Republicans, particularly in Plainview, wrote letters in Joe's support and signed on to lists of supporters published in the local papers. Just before the election, most of the newspapers in the district were on record endorsing Joe Heflin.

On election day, tabulation problems occurred in Hale County. Their early vote was not reported until after many counties had reported their election day results. To add to the suspense, the Hale County final vote was not reported until 2:00 A.M. Without the Hale County vote Landtroop led by some 138 votes. When the vote finally came Joe carried Hale County by 445 votes. Joe managed a margin of 217 votes out of 29,222 cast.

The prevailing comment by voters on election day was "they were turned off by the negative ads" and "they didn't want someone downstate buying this election." This feeling is borne out by the numbers. Landtroop and his pro-voucher supporters spent nearly $854,000.00 to get 14,106 votes. District 85 votes were not for sale.

House District 85 is comprised of 16 counties running from Hale and Floyd Counties in the northern part of the South Plains to Reagan and Irion Counties near the Mexican border. Farming, ranching, and oil production are the major industries in the district. The northern part focuses on irrigated cotton and grain production. Dry land cotton and oil production are found in the central part of the district, with more ranching and farming in the southern part. It is a very diverse district to run in and to represent.

The district has two counties making up nearly 50% of the population: Hale County, the northernmost county, and the city of Plainview with 25% of the population, and Howard County and Big Spring, near the south end of the district, with 23% of the population. These two counties have vastly different interests and voter personalities.

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