By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor
Speculation has been percolating on the possible enlistment of a superstar strategist for an endangered state lawmaker’s campaign as the Texas House Speaker Joe Straus’ team beefs up incumbent protection efforts in a pair of primary runoffs this spring.
Allen Blakemore’s name has emerged in war room discussions as a potential addition to the team of advisors that will try to guide State Rep. Wayne Smith of Baytown to a come-from-behind victory over conservative challenger Briscoe Cain in a Houston-area overtime fight.
The runoff in east Harris County is one of the House leadership team’s two highest priorities in round two along with a bout in a district near San Antonio where GOP State Rep. Doug Miller of New Braunfels is squaring off in OT with a primary foe who’s run to the right.
But the battle between Smith and Cain poses a more imposing challenge for House leaders and their establishment allies in a race that the challenger led by more than four percentage points in the initial election early this month. Miller finished almost four points ahead of runoff rival Kyle Biedermann with a first-pace finish at the polls this month.
Blakemore, who’s widely regarded as the leading GOP consultant in the state’s largest city, would bring a new dimension to a Smith campaign that relied in the first round on advice from strategists who are based in Austin. But an alliance with Smith in the runoff would provide an intriguing sideshow subplot in light of the support that Cain has received from the Conservative Republicans of Texas this year.
The Houston-based group is led by Steve Hotze, a longtime activist who worked in tandem with Blakemore throughout most of the past two decades. Hotze had paid Blakemore a monthly retainer fee for years before a parting last summer that they portrayed as amicable.
Blakemore had ramped up a lobby practice during the first half of 2015 when his star client from the previous year – Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick – was in the midst of his debut session as the Texas Senate’s presiding officer. But Hotze was unhappy with the legislative leadership on both sides of the rotunda in the wake of an anti-gay marriage bill’s failure last spring. Hotze had effectively declared war on the speaker’s team when the Conservative Republicans of Texas rallied behind almost a dozen GOP challengers who were attempting to knock off incumbent Straus allies in the primary election this year.
Three House Republicans who Blakemore advises – State Reps. Dan Huberty of Humble, Jim Murphy of Houston and Michael Schofield of Katy – had all supported Straus when he won a fourth term as speaker early last year amid fierce opposition from hard-line conservatives. Schofield and Murphy ended up running unopposed in the 2016 primary election when Huberty demolished a first-round opponent in a race that conservatives had targeted initially.
Schofield – an attorney who’s serving his first term in the Capitol’s west wing – had been on the losing side in a fight with Blakemore when he lost to Murphy in a GOP primary runoff election for the House 10 years ago. But Schofield demonstrated substantial political savvy when he hired Blakemore to be his consultant for a race that he won in a separate House district in 2014.
Blakemore also signed on with GOP candidates Tom Oliverson and Kevin Roberts in open House races that both are on track to win later this year. The consultant’s presence in the early stages of the Roberts and Oliverson campaigns may have had a discouraging effect on potential competition in their bids for House seats that incumbents aren’t seeking again in 2016.
While Roberts and Oliverson both won primary endorsements from conservatives who oppose Straus, neither has publicly who they might support in the next speaker’s election if both are elected as expected. The prevailing sentiment, however, seems to be that both will be in Straus’ camp when he seeks a record-tying fifth term in the leadership post on opening day of the 2017 regular session in January.
Blakemore’s clients on the east side of the statehouse include Republican State Senators Paul Bettencourt of Houston, Donna Campbell of New Braunfels and Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham in addition to the lieutenant governor who unseated his prececessor in a primary runoff election two years ago.
Anti-Straus forces would consider Smith and Miller to be their biggest prizes of the primary season if they pick them off in the runoff election on May 24. While conservatives who want to overhaul the leadership team knocked off a pair of Straus allies in the March vote, they only managed to break even with House leaders in round one despite a record amount of opposition that they’d fielded.
House leaders and their conservative adversaries both have a chance to pick up a seat this spring in open races that will be on the runoff ballot.