DRIPPING SPRINGS, Texas (AP) - Just after the May primary election, facing a challenge from physician Donna Campbell, longtime state Sen. Jeff Wentworth wondered how he was going to get voters to turn out for the runoff July 31, smack dab in the middle of a hot Texas summer.
"I guess we pick them up in air-conditioned vans and give them free iced tea," he said, half-jokingly.
Though no free iced tea is being passed out yet, both Wentworth and Campbell know that motivating their supporters to turn out will be key to winning the Republican nomination to the Senate District 25 seat Wentworth has held for almost 20 years.
As early voting started Monday across Texas , the two candidates were crisscrossing the X-shaped district that stretches from North San Antonio to South Austin and Creedmoor, and from Boerne to Seguin, urging voters to cast their ballots.
Both campaigns are relying to a large degree on personal contact. They have attended dozens of forums in the past two months, some drawing just a handful of people.
Wentworth recalled one in Comfort recently, attended by just 14 people. "Seven were candidates. Of the rest, I think I had one more (supporter) than Donna," he said.
Campbell credited one-on-one campaigning for getting her into the runoff, and campaign spokesman Jon Oliver said she is continuing that tack for the runoff.
"Sixty-four percent voted against the incumbent in the primary, and the energy her campaign has is as strong as it was in May," he said.
In the higher-profile U.S. Senate race, the campaigns said privately that they are working hard to motivate voters to turn out at a time when many Texans are on vacation or focused on summertime activities or back-to-school schedules rather than politics.
Of 10 Republicans approached on a recent morning at the H-E-B supermarket in Dripping Springs, six knew who Wentworth was. Two knew who Campbell was.
Four said they planned to vote. The rest said they were too busy — and some said that, while they were aware of a U.S. Senate race, they had no idea about a state Senate race.
"It's too hot to think about politics," said Carol Ammerman, 51, who added that she voted for Wentworth in the May 29 primary but might not vote in the runoff.
Dee Craven, 67, a retired small-businessman, said both he and his wife support Campbell. "I'm voting against any incumbent," Craven said.
In downtown New Braunfels, six people who identified themselves as GOP voters split between Campbell or Wentworth.
Ten others, though, said they did not plan to vote in the runoff.
While the marquee race on the ballot is the dogfight between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and tea party challenger Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate, the contest for state Senate District 25 is hardly less intense.
Before the May 29 primary, Wentworth and Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, who had the backing of the monied anti-lawyer group Texans for Lawsuit Reform, had engaged in a nasty slugfest that included a TV ad war and almost-daily attacks, even a lawsuit.
But Jones came in a surprise third, leaving the emergency-room doctor to face the insurance agent senator in the midsummer runoff.
Jones has since endorsed Campbell.
Between May 20 and June 30, Wentworth was far ahead of Campbell in campaign fundraising — $316,888 to $65,791 — and had more than twice as much money on hand, $256,123 to her $107,597, according to filings with the Texas Ethics Commission last week.
Wentworth also far outspent Campbell, $299,629 in all, much of it for advertising and mailers and for political consultants. By contrast, Campbell spent only $12,398, much of it for gas and at Starbucks Coffee shops in the district.
In recent weeks, Campbell has attacked Wentworth for being too moderate on abortion, for not cutting property taxes, for not stopping toll roads and for supporting higher gasoline taxes, among other issues.
In denying Campbell's allegations, the combative Wentworth in turn has accused Campbell of not living in the Senate district until just before she filed to run against him, of supporting double-digit sales taxes because she wants to whack property taxes, of running on a platform to repeal the "Obamacare" federal health care law and other issues that are matters for the U.S. Senate, not the Texas Senate.
"She's uninformed and unprepared," Wentworth said after a recent candidate forum in Dripping Springs. "She escaped any spotlight on her during the primary, because she was running third. Now that she's in the runoff, people are backing away because she's way off the mark."
Campbell has surprised some by opposing abortion even in cases of incest and rape.
In cases of incest, she has said, "you can do DNA on the baby and catch the incesting person," according to reports in the San Marcos Mercury. Of rape, "it's not forced motherhood," she said in the San Antonio Express-News — presumably referring to adoption.
Campbell — who made a name for herself among conservative Republicans two years ago by running unsuccessfully to unseat U.S. Rep.
Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin — said she has not changed her views on key issues, such as fiscal responsibility and limited government, stopping "Obamacare," growing the economy, improving education and requiring that marriage be between a man and woman.
She also said that Wentworth has been in Austin too long and is out of touch with conservative voters in his district.
"Donna knows who she is and why she is running — a citizen running for political office, not a politician running for re-election," Oliver said. "Life is life."
Wentworth's charge that Campbell has a "phony residency" in the district echoes the primary campaign, in which he blasted Jones for not living in the district.
Records show Campbell rented a home in New Braunfels a few months before she filed as a candidate. Her home in Columbus, outside the district, had a homestead exemption in 2010 — indicating that is her true residence.
"She continues to commute to her job at a hospital in Houston," Wentworth said. "She put her house in Columbus on the market only when I raised this issue."
Oliver responded: "He is doing the same things he did with (Jones). He wants to put the focus on her, not him and his record that is not consistent with his district."
With small turnouts, accurate predictions and polling are more difficult than usual, both campaigns said.
Officially, both Wentworth and Campbell said they expect the final vote to be "very, very close."
That echoes in the parking lot of Tractor Supply Co. in Dripping Springs, where self-professed Republicans predict the same close race because of low turnout.
Do they plan to vote?
"If I have time," said one rancher, who declined to give his name as he loaded horse feed into his pickup. "Politicians aren't real high on my to-do list this summer, friend."
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