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The Rove Factor

Former Associates Aid Competitors in Texas

Saturday’s 19th district special election in Texas places two associates of political Svengali Karl Rove in an unnatural position: on opposite sides of a campaign.

Ted Delisi and Todd Olsen, who bought Rove’s political consulting company from him in March 1999 and separated after the 2002 elections, have not faced off in a race until this one.

The contest was forced by Rep. Larry Combest’s (R) decision to resign shortly after winning a 10th term in the conservative West Texas district in 2002. Combest will officially leave the seat May 31.

His decision set off an unprecedented scramble as 17 candidates — 11 Republicans, two Democrats, and one candidate each from the Conservative, Independent, Green and Libertarian parties — filed for the seat.

Of that crowd, five (all Republicans) are given a realistic chance to make an expected runoff in June: Midland businessman Mike Conaway, former Lubbock City Councilman Randy Neugebauer, state Rep. Carl Isett, former Lubbock Mayor David Langston and oilman John Bell.

Olsen, who along with partner Heather Shuvalov retained the office space and staff from the old Rove firm in Austin, Texas, is working on behalf of Neugebauer; Delisi and his new Austin-based firm — Delisi Communications — signed on with Conaway.

“With 17 candidates in the race there is no doubt there are going to be people staring across the finish at you that you are not used to looking at,” said Delisi. “Because Texas is such a Republican state we can look forward to more spirited primaries in the future.”

Olsen, who spent five years at Rove’s right hand, downplayed the former partners’ showdown, noting that he and Delisi have not run into each other at all on the campaign trail, and added: “I don’t know whether anybody out there cares or wants to know.”

Both men have retained a number of other political clients.

Olsen will handle direct mail for Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt (R), who is running for governor, and Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams (R).

Delisi has signed on Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Although the special election campaign has been largely shaped by voter apathy and a lack of defining issues, in the past week Isett appears to have gained some momentum.

“We believe the race is between Carl Isett and whomever gets second place,” said Isett Campaign Manager Alfredo Rodriguez.

When asked about the possibility of winning 50 percent of the vote and avoiding a runoff — an unlikely prospect given the size of the field — Rodriguez said: “If there is any candidate in the race who could hope to avoid a runoff, it is Carl Isett.”

Isett has coupled his role as the only elected official in the race (and hence the only candidate with a real voting base to build from) with a strong fundraising performance bolstered by the support of the Club for Growth, which has endorsed his candidacy and bundled upwards of $200,000 to his campaign.

In his pre-special election report, covering contributions and expenditures through April 13, Isett showed $385,000 raised. He has since brought in $59,000 more in 48-hour contribution notices, which list late campaign contributions.

Neugebauer has led the money chase throughout, bringing in a total of $605,000, of which $150,000 came from his own pocket. Neugebauer raised an additional $15,000 in 48-hour notices.

Olsen sounded a confident note when asked about his candidate’s chances and refused to concede a runoff spot to Isett.

“We are exactly where we want to be,” he said. “Neugebauer has the highest positive name identification of any candidate out there and a strong base of people below that [who] think he is the best candidate.”

Conaway, who has touted his business connections to President Bush throughout the contest, has stayed financially competitive, raising $405,000 through April 13.

Conaway and Bush were partners in Bush Exploration, an oil company, from 1982 to 1987; during his tenure as Texas governor, Bush appointed Conaway to the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy, where he currently serves as chairman.

Bush has a special connection to this district — it was the site of his maiden political campaign for Congress in 1978. He lost that open-seat race to Kent Hance (D), who held it for six years before leaving to run unsuccessfully for Senate. Hance later switched parties and is now the chairman of Isett’s campaign.

Both Langston and Bell are hoping that residual name identification garnered from past elected service (Langston) or as the focus of a high-profile domestic oil campaign (Bell) will boost them into a runoff.

Langston served as the mayor of Lubbock as a Democrat from 1992 to 1996. He also ran unsuccessfully in a high-profile state Senate special election in 1996. He switched parties just before entering this special election.

Bell acquired the moniker “Give ’em hell Bell” in 1999 when he became the public face for a grassroots movement to limit oil imports, which were crippling oil producers (such as Bell) in the Permian Basin.

Neither man has been able to keep up with the fundraising pace set by Isett, Neugebauer and Conaway, however.

Langston had raised $171,000 in his pre-special election report, $102,000 of which he had donated to the campaign.

Bell has not filed any financial reports with the Federal Election Commission.

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