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West Texas Heat

West Texas voters will head to the polls Tuesday to fill the vacancy left by Rep. Larry Combest’s (R) resignation from the House on Saturday.

Accountant Mike Conaway (R) and former Lubbock City Councilman Randy Neugebauer (R) are competing in the heavily Republican district after beating out 15 other candidates in the May 3 primary.

Both camps expressed optimism about their chances while echoing an old saw regarding runoff campaigns: Any prediction about voter turnout is essentially guesswork.

“It’s June, it’s West Texas and it’s warm,” said Conaway consultant Ted Delisi. “It takes a core vote of highly motivated individuals to win when it’s warm in Texas.”

The temperature across the expansive district is expected to be 92 degrees and partly sunny on election day, according to the Weather Channel.

Early voting, which began May 19 and concluded last Friday, indicates that the contest is likely to be decided in three counties — Lubbock, Midland and Ector.

More than three-quarters of the voters in the May 3 primary came from those three counties, including roughly 45 percent from Lubbock County alone.

In early votes, Lubbock again led the way with 10,500 votes cast through Thursday; Midland and Ector counties showed 8,500 votes in the hopper.

Roughly 15 percent of the district’s registered voters turned out in the primary, but a much smaller number is expected to participate in the runoff.

As a result of the anticipated low turnout, both Neugebauer and Conaway are devoting significant funds to get-out-the-vote efforts and media campaigns.

In his pre-runoff filing with the Federal Election Commission, which covered contributions and expenditures from April 14 to May 14, Neugebauer spent $55,000 on GOTV efforts while outlaying $168,000 on media. Conaway spent $72,000 on media in that same time period.

While Neugebauer has regularly led the money chase, Conaway actually outraised him in the filing period, bringing in $182,000 to Neugebauer’s $123,000. Conaway loaned his campaign $15,000 in the period.

In the days since the reports were filed, however, Neugebauer has raised an additional $127,500; Conaway accumulated $53,000 extra.

The late contributions bring Neugebauer’s total fundraising for the race up to $850,000, a total that includes an initial $150,000 personal loan. Conaway has raised $640,000 for the race.

Conaway did have $115,000 more than Neugebauer left to spend as of May 14.

Neugebauer began the month-long runoff as the nominal frontrunner, as he took 22 percent of the primary vote to Conaway’s 21 percent. Given the low turnout, however, only 821 votes separated the two men.

Neugebauer further cemented his status as a slight favorite in the runoff by securing the endorsements of both state Rep. Carl Isett (R) and former Lubbock Mayor David Langston (R), who took 19 percent and 14 percent, respectively, in the primary. All three men hail from Lubbock.

Conaway is clearly not ceding the Lubbock vote to Neugebauer, and spent three days last week trawling for votes in the area.

Even Todd Olsen, a Neugebauer consultant, admitted that “Conaway has spent an enormous amount of time in Lubbock.”

Despite Neugebauer’s primary showing and the momentum provided by the endorsements, Olsen said his candidate has not engaged in a Rose Garden runoff strategy.

“We ran like we were the underdog starting the first working day of the runoff,” he said. “That’s Randy’s nature.”

While Olsen acknowledged that both candidates have similar profiles and have largely avoided the type of negative campaigning typically employed to draw sharp distinctions in runoffs, he believes Neugebauer’s experience in Washington will be the key difference between the two men.

“Randy is talking about his experience and his ideas on how to fundamentally change the way government works,” said Olsen. “He got most of those ideas from 10 years of going up [to Washington] and effecting change for West Texas.”

During that time, Neugebauer served as chairman of the Ports-to-Plains Coalition, a lobbying group dedicated to creating a trade corridor between Denver and Mexico through West Texas. Combest had also been heavily involved in the project, which won approval from the House last October.

“Randy is the person who can go to Washington and effectively change it,” Olsen said.

Delisi, Conaway’s consultant, took issue with the portrayal of Neugebauer as a mover and shaker in the nation’s capital.

“He visited Washington,” Delisi said. “Neugebauer running on his Washington experience when he doesn’t have much is pretty weak.”

Delisi believes that experience will be important in the race, but argued that Conaway’s history as a military veteran, longtime accountant and personal friend and political appointee of President Bush will matter more to 19th district voters.

In the runoff, Conaway has not been shy about noting that he and Bush were partners in an oil company in the mid-1980s and that Bush, as Lone Star State governor, appointed him to the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy, a commission that Conaway currently chairs.

“There is no secret to the fact that Conaway’s relationship with the president is the envy of the other candidates in this race,” Delisi said.

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