For the first time in years, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) is campaigning like he has something to lose in the 14th district GOP primary Tuesday — and Republican officials on the ground along the Lone Star State’s Gulf Coast say he just might.
Several prominent, local elected officials — including some powerful Republican insiders — are backing Paul’s challenger, Friendswood City Councilman Chris Peden. Peden is depending on shoe leather, newspaper endorsements and the support of a well-known Houston talk-radio host to overcome the barrage of TV and radio ads being run by a Paul campaign flush with cash courtesy of the following he developed during his quixotic bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
Ironically, it’s the publicity Paul garnered during a presidential campaign that is still officially under way that could sink him on Tuesday — and the Congressman recently shifted his focus to his House re-election bid in an open acknowledgment that he is vulnerable. Still, most Republican insiders in the sprawling, GOP-leaning Gulf Coast-area district acknowledge that a Peden victory remains more of a possibility than a likelihood.
“[Republicans] kind of knew [Paul] was a quasi-libertarian. But the positions he articulated in the presidential race opened the eyes of lot of folks,” said Galveston County Republican Party Chairman Kerry Neves.
Yvonne Dewey, the Brazoria County GOP chairwoman, who like Neves is neutral in the primary, called a Peden victory “doable.”
“But it’s definitely an uphill battle,” she added.
Early voting in the Texas primaries kicked off on Feb. 19.
The Paul campaign did not respond to a telephone message on Tuesday requesting comment. But the Peden campaign made clear that it plans to win the primary precisely by painting Paul as a libertarian, and offering Peden, a certified public accountant by trade, as the true Republican in the race.
Peden campaign Political Director Onzelo Markum also argued that an increased turnout of “traditional” Republican voters generated by the GOP presidential primary will aid Peden. Texas’ presidential primaries are scheduled for the same day as the 14th district GOP contest.
“We can definitely win,” Markum said, although he conceded that he had not conducted any internal polling and could not validate that assertion with data.
Markum’s confidence is challenged as well by his candidate’s severe fundraising deficit compared with the incumbent. Paul closed the Federal Election Commission’s pre-primary fundraising period (Jan. 1-Feb. 13) with $279,000 in the bank, while Peden’s report showed $107,000 on hand and $132,000 in debt.
Additionally, Paul’s presidential campaign account reported $6 million in cash on hand as of Jan. 31. Paul can transfer that money to his House account as long as he doesn’t move over any funds that were donated by contributors who already have maxed out to his Congressional campaign.
Partly because of Paul’s access to this war chest and an extensive media blitz that has included one TV ad on broadcast and cable television and six radio spots on stations throughout the 14th district, one Republican strategist who monitors Texas politics predicted Paul would beat Peden — perhaps handily.
“Chris Peden was unable to become a known entity. And even if he did that, he had to make voters aware that, ‘This is the real Ron Paul.’ He hasn’t done that,” this strategist said.
Paul’s pre-primary FEC report showed $42,000 in expenditures for radio spots and $120,000 spent for the production and airing of television ads — and the GOP strategist said Paul is airing about $200,000 worth of TV advertisements during the final week of the campaign.
Meanwhile, Peden never has been on the air in this campaign and doesn’t plan to be in advance of Election Day. But independent observers of the race credit him with traveling all over the solidly Republican district, which includes portions of nine different counties and is partially covered by the Houston media market, to meet as many voters as possible one-on-one.
Markum said the Peden campaign has made thousands of voter contacts via phone banks, direct mail, and door-knocking — a fact backed up by even those Republican insiders who believe Paul is likely to win on Tuesday.
Peden has been endorsed by two local papers, Galveston County Daily News and Victoria Advocate, the two Republican National Committee members who hail from the 14th district, two county sheriffs and a county treasurer.
To underscore his contention that Paul is running scared, Markum noted that Peden was in Victoria on Monday night to debate the Congressman. But Paul, who decried the efforts of Republican leaders and media outlets to bar him from some of the presidential debates, declined to show up, so the “debate” proceeded with an empty chair on stage in place of the incumbent.
Edd Hendee, the Houston talk-radio host who is supporting Peden and has the challenger on his show regularly, argued that Paul’s best asset before the presidential campaign was his anonymity.
Hendee described Paul as a “radical libertarian,” contending that 14th district Republican voters — who he said are traditional Republicans as opposed to those who lean libertarian — are finally aware of this because of all of the attention the Congressman has received during his presidential bid.
“I believe [Peden] is running as good a race as he possibly can,” Hendee said.