Primary fights few and far between as Texas Republicans focus on November 2020

Texas Tribune News

Quilt at the Lincoln Day Dinner for the Tarrant County Republican Party in Fort Worth.
Quilt at the Lincoln Day Dinner for the Tarrant County Republican Party in Fort Worth.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

It’s been quiet — almost too quiet.

That’s the mood as Republicans in Texas, home to bloody primary battles in recent election cycles, enter the final couple months of the candidate filing period with fewer-than-usual intra-party fights on their hands. While plenty could change, the trend so far is encouraging to state GOP leaders who have sought to tamp down on internecine conflict as they face a high-stakes general election.

“Everybody from both factions sees now how we are all in the same boat, and I think there is some evidence that these factions see that we are facing a real challenge in Texas,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist who has worked for both incumbents and challengers. “There’s just not as much of an appetite for the primary battles as there has been in the past.”

Democrats’ ambitions for 2020 in Texas have gone a long way toward unifying the GOP. Democrats are targeting U.S. Sen. John Cornyn after U.S. Sen Ted Cruz‘s narrow win last year. They are going after six Republican-held U.S. House seats amid a stream of retirements. And they are working to flip the state House, where they are effectively nine seats away from the majority.

To be sure, there is not a shortage of tension within the Texas GOP at the moment. Some conservative activists are still fuming that the most recent legislative session was a “purple” session marked by overly cautious policy pursuits. There is sharp grassroots disagreement over how state GOP leaders have responded to recent shootings in El Paso and Odessa. And House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, is scrambling to rebuild trust among Republican members after being accused of politically targeting 10 of them.

But as the clock ticks down to the Dec. 9 filing deadline, those tensions — or any others — have yet to translate into a robust roster of primary challengers, especially so in state House races, which have been the biggest battleground for the Texas GOP civil war in recent cycles. Currently, less than 10 of the 82 Republicans in the House have primary opponents, and even fewer of the challengers appear to be running serious campaigns for now.

The dearth of intra-party fights means the spotlight is shining brighter than usual on those who have bucked the wishes of state Republican leadership and pressed forward with incumbent challenges or have openly considered running. That group includes two congressional opponents drawing increasing intrigue as well as state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, who is exploring a run against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

Still, those cases are outliers, not the trend — and state leaders would prefer to keep it that way. Fallon, for example, has gotten not-so-subtle pushback from Cornyn’s top two conservative backers: Cruz and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both of whom have been far more amenable to intraparty battles in previous cycles. Cruz declined to endorse Cornyn in his 2014 primary, while Patrick backed Fallon last year in his primary challenge to then-state Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls.

“Texas conservatives must be more united than ever before, whether you are an ultra-conservative or on the moderate side of the spectrum,” Patrick wrote to supporters Monday night, recapping a speech he gave over the weekend. “Instead of arguing with each other, it is essential that we focus on those who oppose liberty and freedom.”

The message has been crystal clear from other state leaders, including Bonnen, who kicked off the cycle bluntly warning of consequences for House members who campaign against one another. That edict has been complicated by the more recent allegations that Bonnen sought to collude with a hardline conservative activist to target 10 fellow House Republicans, though the scandal does not seem to have significantly impacted the primary challenger lineup for now.

“I think [Bonnen’s pronouncement] has a lot to do with it, and it scared a lot of people from running,” said James Trombley, who is challenging Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton. “I am a little disappointed we’re not seeing more. Maybe I can help lead the way. Others can see our success and realize this is something we need to do.”

Gov. Greg Abbott, who himself worked to unseat three House members from his own party in 2018, has also sought to keep the peace this cycle. Shortly after the session ended earlier this year, he declared every Republican member of the Legislature deserved reelection, and he has been steadily rolling out incumbent endorsements since late July — almost 30 already — a few timed to head off real or suspected primary challenges.

One of the more overt examples involved state Rep. Candy Noble, R-Allen, a freshman who helped carry one of Abbott’s priority anti-abortion bills during the latest session. A day after word got out that Angela Powell, a Plano school board member, was exploring a primary bid against Noble, Abbott endorsed the incumbent for reelection. Powell decided not to run in the ensuing days.

In another notable intervention, Abbott in August endorsed state Rep. Dustin Burrows for reelection days after the Lubbock Republican resigned as chairman of the House Republican Caucus amid the fallout from the Bonnen scandal.

Of course, plenty more is happening behind the scenes, where GOP campaigners describe a stronger-than-normal drive to keep the party in line.

“The Republican Party is working harder than ever to silence heretics,” said Luke Macias, a consultant for some of the Legislature’s most conservative members and a veteran of primary challenges.

That environment has reduced the number of operatives willing to associate, at least publicly, with primary challengers.

“For me, it’s just a matter of doing the right thing,” said Brett Rogers, who is working with Bonnen’s primary foe, Rhonda Seth, as well as one of Cornyn’s, Dwayne Stovall. “I’m one of the few … because I really don’t care.”

One big open question is how involved groups such as Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life plan to be in the 2020 primary — and if so, whether they plan to be more discerning than they have in the past. They have served as the top funders of state House primary challengers in recent cycles, though the challengers they backed in 2018 almost all came up short, and neither group disclosed significant fundraising on their most recent reports.

“Texas Right to Life will never falter in challenging elected officials who won’t protect Life,” a spokeswoman for the group, Kim Schwartz, said in a statement. “We will challenge several Republican incumbents in the upcoming primary and will make sure that the Democrat party, which believes in abortion until birth, does not gain majority control of Texas in November.”

Empower Texans, meanwhile, signaled its 2020 focus in June when it made its first endorsement of the cycle, backing President Donald Trump for a second term. “It is the most important race on the 2020 ballot for the future of Texas and our nation,” Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan wrote at the time.

Another group that has been vocal in intra-party matters, at least in North Texas, is the True Texas Project, formerly known as the NE Tarrant Tea Party. Its leader, Julie McCarty, said the group will continue to hold elected officials accountable but is “not as focused on candidates this go-round,” instead training its efforts on policy.

Of the primary challengers who are running, not all are waging the kind of clear-cut ideological battles that have epitomized previous cycles. Take for example Jacey Jetton, the former chairman of the Fort Bend County GOP who is running against state Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land. Miller is a top Democratic target in 2018 after winning reelection last year by just under 5 percentage points, and Jetton is arguing he would be a better nominee to defend the seat.

“This is all about holding HD 26,” Jetton said. Ideology, he added, “is not part of my pitch at this time — this is just about who’s going to work for it” in 2020.

To be sure, some of the primary opponents who have declared are indeed running to the right of the incumbents. A recent mailer from Trombley derided Stucky as Lynn “Libby” Stucky, calling him a “liberal Republican” and accusing him of being weak on fighting illegal immigration and rising property taxes.

In federal races, the two notable exceptions to the quiet primary season have been RJ Boatman, who is running against Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, and Chris Putnam, who is opposing Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, the ranking member on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Both Boatman and Putnam are running to the right of the incumbents, positioning themselves as not only more conservative but more loyal to President Donald Trump. And both challengers have made attention-grabbing moves lately, with Putnam announcing he raised a hefty $500,000 in the first six days of his campaign.

Both Boatman and Putnam have met with the Club for Growth, the national anti-tax group that played aggressively last cycle in Texas and won all but one of the races in which it spent money. An official with the group said Boatman and Putnam are “both legitimate challengers that you don’t see everyday … very ideologically aligned with us” and that the Club will take a look at the races.

Perhaps underscoring how sensitive primary challenges have become this cycle in Texas, neither campaign appears interested in drawing too much attention for now. Neither responded to interview requests for this story, as well as requests for more information on who was running the campaigns. The media contact for Boatman’s campaign has been listed as Emily Gorney, who appears to work for the New York-based GOP consulting firm Big Dog Strategies.

Babin’s campaign responded to Boatman’s July launch by confirming the incumbent is seeking reelection and touting how he is “working with President Trump to finish the border wall,” among other things. Granger has not publicly commented on Putnam yet.