Monday, October 28, 2013

Questions raised about tonight's straw poll in Harris County

Who's got the short straw? Depends
 on who's picking out the straws.
Coming up tonight: a "Take Back Harris County" rally in Houston, featuring many of the Republican candidates for statewide office as "special guests" and a straw poll.

I always find straw polls to be very interesting political games. I've said many times before that if you give me at least a week's notice and an adequate budget, that I can buy almost any straw poll in the country.

There are several important tricks to understanding straw polls:

  • Who is sponsoring the event? Is it a large nonpartisan group like the local Chamber of Commerce? Is it the county Republican or Democratic party?
  • How tickets to vote are obtained? Are they free for all attendees? Do you have to show ID? Can you buy multiple tickets and then vote multiple times? Are tickets limited to people who are already members of the organization sponsoring the event?
  • How was the event publicized? Did certain candidates get advanced notice? Were all candidates in the race invited? How much effort was made to increase attendance among the public at large, or at least the local Republican primary voters?
  • Where is the event being held? Is it a central location? Is it in the home district of one of the candidates? Is it a less convenient drive for another candidate's supporters?
With those framing questions, let's chat a little about this "Take Back Harris County" straw poll. Here's the information I've been able to gather...

The event was originally promoted as a rally, to raise excitement for the Republican primary candidates in an area that's been trending more blue. A straw poll was not originally in the plans but was added later. Perhaps coincidentally, the Montgomery County Tea Party had a straw poll on October 23, right before Take Back Harris County announced they were having a straw poll as well. 

Or perhaps it's not such a coincidence. I'll draw your attention to the Montgomery County results in two races:

Lieutenant Governor
David Dewhurst - 59
Dan Patrick - 49
Todd Staples - 41
Jerry Patterson - 36

Attorney General
Ken Paxton - 69
Barry Smitherman - 57
Dan Branch - 42

Both Dan Patrick and Barry Smitherman are from the Houston area, and should have strong bases of support with the Montgomery County Tea Party. I've heard several people who have longer experience in Texas politics mention that Patrick and Smitherman will need to "run up the score" with Houston Republican primary voters to help balance the strongholds their competition has elsewhere in the state. 

So, here we are with two Houston-area candidates in highly competitive primary races needing to get positive press that they do have support in Houston and are viable contenders. Let's look at how this Take Back Harris County straw poll comes into play.

Looking at the website,, there are a long list of Republican and tea party organizations listed at the bottom that have "sponsored" the event, but none of them are listed as the actual organizer. However, at the bottom of the page, there is this disclaimer:

"PD POL AD Conservative Republicans of Texas." OK, so who are the "Conservative Republicans of Texas?" That's not a very distinctive name, and as someone who has done a lot of work forming and advising PACs back in Florida, I can tell you there are strategies to picking names when you want to get noticed and when you don't. I can't read minds and say with certainty what the strategy is here, but it is generally noteworthy when a name is not noteworthy. 

Conservative Republicans of Texas is a PAC founded by Dr. Steve Hotze. Hotze has publicly endorsed Patrick and Smitherman, and multiple sources have told me that he is also an investor in Patrick's talk radio programs.

I did a little more digging and apparently the other organizers of this event are also political consultants: Vincent Harris, whose firm provides digital services to Patrick and Smitherman, and Allen Blakemore, who is the general consultant for Smitherman, as well as consulting for Patrick and Comptroller candidate Harvey Hilderbran.

In essence, what we have is some very smart consultants who know that strategically, Patrick and Smitherman need to make a show of strength in Houston to demonstrate viability, who have planned an event and added on a straw poll with limited tickets. I have heard but cannot confirm that some campaigns got earlier notice of this event than others, and some got earlier notice of the straw poll than others. Because this event has limited tickets available, earlier notice is an advantage that could allow some campaigns and take up the spots first and stack the deck with their supporters. 

Let me be clear: I make no accusations that there is anything unethical about any of this, and certainly nothing illegal. Anyone can have a rally and invite whoever they want - hooray for the First Amendment, y'all! 

However, to the extent that anyone wishes to say that tonight's results prove anything about the Lieutenant Governor or Attorney General races, all that tonight is likely to prove is that some consultants are good at planning events. 

I will say that if Dewhurst or Staples wins the LG straw poll tonight, or Paxton wins the AG poll, then that could be construed as exposing less-than-firm local support for Patrick and Smitherman.

We'll see what happens in just a few hours!

Follow me on Twitter at @rumpfshaker

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