The latest United States senators from Texas, Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, know what a predecessor, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, knew well: runoff elections matter.
LBJ was Senate Majority Leader when fellow Sen. John F. Kennedy beat him for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960. But because he was a powerful senator, from a critical state, Kennedy picked him as his running mate.
LBJ might never have been a senator had Texas copied the 39 states without runoffs in primary elections.
In 1948, Johnson, after 11 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, ran an open Senate seat. The most formidable of the 11 Democratic candidates was former Gov. Coke Stevenson.
Stevenson had been speaker of the Texas House and lieutenant governor. He became governor in 1941, when Gov. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel won a special U.S. Senate election.
Stevenson then won two-year terms on his own. In 1948, he led Johnson in the primary, 477,077 to LBJ’s 405,617, or 71,460 votes. In most states, Stevenson would have been the Democratic nominee.
But nine others got 319,370, or 26.6 percent, to. Stevenson’s 39.7 percent, and LBJ’s 33.7 percent.
Since 1918, Texas law says it takes a majority to win a primary. Otherwise, the top two have a runoff. LBJ’s infamous 87-vote victory came when a late ballot box appeared from a South Texas county, that added more than 200 votes to his total.
The State Democratic Executive Committee declared Johnson the winner, 494,191 to Stevenson’s 494,104. LBJ’s percentage was 50.0044.
And then he was elected vice president; became president Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas; and won a landslide election in 1964.
LBJ also had two special elections, where runoffs weren’t held. Until 1959, special elections to fill vacancies had no primaries, or runoffs. All candidates, regardless of party, ran on the same ballot. Whoever got the most votes – even without a majority – won.
That’s how Johnson got to Congress in the first place.
After 24-year U.S. Rep. James P. “Buck” Buchanan died on Feb. 22, 1937. LBJ, then 28, quit his job as Texas director of the National Youth Administration and campaigned as 100 percent for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s controversial agenda.
LBJ, from the county in the 10th District with the fewest people, faced several candidates, including a state senator, a county judge, and an Austinite endorsed by the city’s popular mayor.
LBJ ran feverishly, to the forks of the LBJ got just 8,280 votes, or 27.6 percent. But he beat the runner-up by 3,169 votes. He was the new congressman.
Had there been a runoff, backers of the other candidates might have voted for the runner-up.
In the 1941 U.S. Senate special election, the lack of a runoff cut the other way. LBJ won in unofficial returns. But in the controversial official count, O’Daniel led by 1,311 votes – 30.49 percent to LBJ’s 30.36 percent. Several others got 39.15 percent.
Had there been a runoff, LBJ might have gotten more of the also-ran vote than O’Daniel – and become a senator seven years sooner.
Cornyn and Cruz likewise wouldn’t have gotten to the Senate without runoffs.
Cornyn was elected to the Texas Supreme Court in 1990, and attorney general in 1998. In 2002, running for a vacant U.S. Senate seat, he got more than 77 percent in the Republican Primary over four minor candidates.
In November, he trounced Democrat Ron Kirk, a popular African-American who’d been Dallas mayor and Texas Secretary of State.
The runoff that helped Cornyn came four years earlier, in the 1998 Republican primary for attorney general. Cornyn faced six-year Railroad Commissioner Barry Williamson, and former Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Pauken.
Cornyn got 32.2 percent in the primary. Pauken got 29.7 percent. But Williamson got 38.1 percent. Without a runoff, Williamson would probably have been attorney general, and Cornyn probably would be practicing law.
But there was a runoff, attended by less than half as many voters as the first primary. Cornyn won with 57.9 percent. After four years in the limelight as attorney general, he breezed on to the Senate.
As for Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst outpolled him by just over 147,000 votes in last year’s May 29 Republican primary — 44.6 percent to Cruz’s 34.2 percent.
But seven other candidates got 21.2 percent, denying Dewhurst – or Cruz — a majority.
In the runoff July 31, Cruz led Dewhurst by 151,151 votes, getting 56.8 percent.
And Mr. Cruz went to Washington, where he now seems to be running for president.
DAVE McNEELY is a political columnist. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (512)458-2963.