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The rhythmic chant "Go, John, Go" rolled through the Mesa Grill on the Katy Freeway as state Representative John Culbersonbroke the news to a wall-to-wall crowd last week: Opponent Peter Wareing had just called to concede defeat in the District 7 congressional race. Back at the Westin Galleria ballroom, Wareing's supporters finished dining and drinking at a first-class buffet and bar, then headed home to contemplate just how little $3.5 million buys these days at the ballot box.
Culberson not only had outrun River Oaks businessman Wareing's Mercedes-Benz of a campaign with a budget rent-a-car, but also had survived the best efforts of westside religious conservative organizer Dr. Steven Hotze, who had endorsed Wareing.
The de facto successor to the retiring Bill Archer routed Wareing 60-40 in a race the Houston Chronicle had headlined as a dead heat only days before. In the process, the winner may have finally reassembled the pieces of a county party split by the long-running feud between social conservatives headed by Hotze and the self-described "traditional Republicans" led by former party chair Betsy Lake.
"I've been fighting for this for ten years," Lake exulted as the returns poured in on Election Night. During her tenure as chair, Lake refused to make the divisive issues of abortion and gay rights a litmus test of ideological purity for GOP candidates.
"If we all work together, we can elect the best person," she vowed. "That's going to be one of my goals: keep all of us working together, which is what we should have been doing instead of squabbling with each other."
Meanwhile, Wareing's attempt to run as a staunch right-to-life conservative while subtly encouraging backdoor Democratic support had a literal and symbolic meltdown. The Atlanta-based One Call phone bank erroneously spewed late-night, election-eve recorded phone pitches by Democrat Paul Hobby, a close personal friend of Wareing's, directed at thousands of Democratic households in the congressional district. Hobby can be a charming conversationalist, but not on the phone after midnight. Hobby spent the next day fielding complaints from voters who'd lost their beauty sleep. And Wareing was forced to issue an apology and admit he'd recruited a high-profile Democrat to help his faltering election bid.
Lake limited her role in this election to licking stamps, stuffing envelopes and providing advice for Culberson, who finessed the abortion issue while cultivating a coalition of supporters who ranged from conservative westside ministers to pro-choice GOP women. The Culberson coalition was the kind of "big tent" effort Republicans love to talk about but seldom manage to pull off on Election Day.
In addition to celebrating the victory of their candidate, Lake and others cheered the defeat of Hotze's vote-delivery machine. Over the past decade, it had wielded immense power in low-turnout Republican primaries. This time around, not only did the Hotze stamp of approval fail to sway district voters, it could not even deliver a victory for conservative judicial candidate Joe Maida against Bush appointee Martha Hill Jamison. She had switched parties two years ago, and held onto the 164th bench by a margin of 53 percent to Maida's 47.
Hotze had bombarded his and his brother Rick's home-precinct households with pre-election automated telephone messages with the good doctor's own voice endorsing Wareing, Maida and others. The results were less than impressive. In Steven's Precinct 234 in Tanglewood, Jamison easily outpolled Maida 496 to 356. In brother Rick's neighboring Precinct 303, Maida did even worse, losing to Jamison 554 to 339. Wareing managed to win both affluent precincts by comfortable margins, although he was trounced in other suburban stretches of west Houston where Hotze's influence has traditionally been strongest.
God may be alive and well on the west side, but is Hotze dead?
"Dr. Hotze has lost a lot of his credibility," opines old foe Lake. "I think now candidates realize they don't have to have his support to win. We've proven it."
In refusing to ask for Hotze's support before the election (see Insider, "Kissing Off a Kingmaker," April 6), Culberson may have effectively broken the kingmaker's spell.
According to Culberson organizational director Merle Carlson, Culberson wanted to show Hotze "that we had a very delicate coalition of people put together, and we intended to hold that together through the election."
Carlson accompanied Culberson to a showdown visit with Hotze at his home before the runoff vote. She says the activist missed a chance to salvage his dwindling influence.
"I felt that when we were talking to Hotze that John offered more to Hotze than Hotze offered to John," recalls Carlson. "That John would give him credibility that he didn't deserve."
Hotze spokesman Allen Blakemore counters that reports of his client's demise are premature.
"Steve feels like he had a great night," says Blakemore blissfully. He notes that 70 percent of the candidates Hotze endorsed won. Maida did have a slight edge in the early voting, where Hotze's influence is strongest, even though he lost to Jamison on Election Day. Blakemore attributed Jamison's victory to her superior campaign bankroll, although the money edge didn't salvage Wareing's gilded effort.
In any event, the days when Hotze could command $10,000 contributions from candidates for his political action committee, Conservative Republicans of Harris County, have likely come to an end. At least for those political hopefuls who, unlike Peter Wareing, do not have money to burn.