Friendly Fire in Texas Legislative Races

This is not unusual: candidates lining up to challenge incumbents in primary elections. That is a simple risk of political life.

But this is unusual: a member of the Legislature actively working to knock off a sitting legislator from the same political party.

So it got a little attention from the whispering set when Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, endorsed Danny Pelton in the Republican primary for a Central Texas House seat currently claimed by state Rep. J.D. Sheffield of Gatesville. Fletcher, the chairman of the Texas Legislative Tea Party Caucus, is not alone in the elected class: Jerry Patterson, the Texas land commissioner, who is a candidate for lieutenant governor, is on board, as is state Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls.

Pelton also has the support of some Tea Party leaders and other conservatives, who uniformly have labeled Sheffield as a liberal Republican who doesn’t always toe the party line. “I get tired of having someone sitting behind me, in my party, canceling my vote,” Fletcher said.

What’s happening to Sheffield — and to Republican colleagues like Reps. Angie Chen Button of Richardson and Bennett Ratliff of Coppell and state Sen. John Carona of Dallas — is evidence that much of the real political action in Texas happens not in November general elections, but in Republican primary elections in March.

It’s evident in most of the statewide races, partly because most of those seats are open and there are more ambitious Republicans than there are jobs for them. It’s a competitive year.

At least, with the notable exception of the three challengers to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, they waited for the incumbents to move along.

Legislators are often under fire — so much so that it would be downright strange to go through an election cycle without a few incumbents falling to challenges. With Texas Republicans acting like two parties operating under one flag, it is increasingly common to see the populists raging against the establishment within the party.

To get ready for general elections, the political plotters look at districts to pick their best targets for challenges. They are looking for a Republican in a Democratic district or vice versa, or someone defending a swing district in a year that favors the other party. In primary challenges, it is a trickier analysis, driven by rankings on partisan scorecards, personalities or loyalties. If the first is quantitative analysis, the second is more qualitative.

That said, Sheffield’s voting record puts him on the less conservative end of the conservative majority in the House, according to measures like one calculated by Mark P. Jones, who heads the political science department at Rice University. Jones considers all “nonlopsided roll call votes” — an academic way of saying he does not pick and choose which votes to use — and arrays members from liberal to conservative based on those votes. In his latest ranking, Sheffield landed to the left of all but one of the House’s 95 Republican members.

Those votes put him on somebody’s list. Another disadvantage is that he is in his first term; he is an incumbent who hasn’t had time to become entrenched.

Ratliff, who will probably face one of the two opponents he defeated in 2012 in next year’s Republican primary, is also a freshman just getting his grip. He gets more conservative marks than Sheffield in Jones’s rankings, but a couple of Tea Party groups in his area hope to unseat him.

The revenge angle is apparently in Sheffield’s race, too: He unseated an incumbent in 2012 who shared the same consultant now working for Pelton and Fletcher. Fletcher, who said he met Pelton at a goat cookoff in his hometown of Brady, said he was irked that Sheffield unseated Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, in 2012, and that, once elected, he didn't vote the way Miller had. That's why he got involved in this particular race. Other incumbents are being challenged, but not by him, he said.

Button has been in office longer than Sheffield. And like Ratliff and Carona, she has a challenger who is not getting obvious support from her House colleagues. Maybe that’s coming, but Sheffield is the only candidate currently afflicted in that way.

In each case, the challenges are coming from the right, even though the Legislature turned in a reliably conservative set of bills this year, and drawing meaningful distinctions — the sorts of distinctions that make a difference to voters — gets more and more arcane.

In low-turnout party primaries, arcane distinctions can make the difference.

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