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Is this the year that independent-minded state Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, finally gets his comeuppance from conservatives?

Rep. Tommy Merrit (left) and his Republican primary challenger David Simpson (right) unexpectedly run into each other as both court Longview's Chick-Fil-A breakfast club.

Longview’s Chick-Fil-A was already buzzing, with the usual crowd of outspoken breakfasters whiling away the morning kibbitzing, when the race for House District 7 materialized — literally.

As state Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, was stirring things at one end of the table, his challenger in the March 2 primary, David Simpson, appeared at the other end. That sent the regulars into orbit as they rushed to explain the differences between the candidates. “It’s nomad versus no-brain!” shouted Merritt ("no-brain") supporter Ron McCutcheon, seizing on Simpson’s multiple re-locations. “They both need a haircut,” cackled Gene Robertson, a.k.a. Boss Hawg. Merritt kept up the teasing and joking until he left, while Simpson earnestly tried to discuss his campaign and hand out literature.

Merritt has never fit anyone’s definition of conventional. In his 13 years in the Legislature, he’s worked both sides of the aisle, drawing ire from many within his own party. While he’s always been known back home for catering to the individual needs of his constituents, his independent voting streak hasn’t always sat well with Republican traditionalists — which is why he's drawn a primary opponent in every cycle except one since 2000. This year, Tea Party backers and other conservative activists in Longview drafted Simpson, a devout Christian who’s only been in Longview a little more than nine years and talks a lot about the 10th Amendment and the importance of small government. He’s betting that his sincere appeal for states’ rights can dislodge a longtime incumbent with a knack for retail politics.

It’s hard to find anyone in Longview who doesn’t know the Merritts. Tthe family only recently sold Merritt Tool, one of the biggest employers in town. “The Merritt brand is very, very strong here,” says Mike Childress, one of Merritt’s friends and supporters. Childress says it’s not just Tommy; his siblings and his parents are pillars of the community. “Whoever’s running for office, they’re darn sure going to go through [his brother] A.P.”

Merritt spends his days running from one event to another: Kiwanis club meetings, nursing home parties, get-togethers at the VFW Post. Everywhere he goes, he hops around from person to person, explaining that he’s happy to get things done for them. “I just want to tell y'all this is not about the Constitution — it’s about what I can do for you!” he yells out to the Chick-Fil-A crowd.

Merritt is more than a little irritated at Simpson’s challenge. Simpson and his supporters “have no idea what a state rep’s duty is and the joy you bring to people,” he says. Merritt happily attends Eagle Scout ceremonies and reads to schoolchildren in the district to secure generational support and bring that “joy” to constituents.

In contrast, Simpson starts his appeals off a little awkwardly. Soft-spoken and a little hesitant, he’s had to explain that he didn’t watch the Super Bowl or the Daytona 500, both of which can come up pretty frequently in towns like Longview. He approaches people at restaurants and doorsteps with appeals to their conservative values. In most cases, he talks about his desire to repeal the business franchise tax and his efforts to stop illegal immigration — without amnesty for those already here. “We’ve got to assert our sovereignty as a state,” he tells anyone willing to listen. “That doesn’t mean anything unreasonable, but it just says ‘no’  to unconstitutional legislation.”

He describes his bid for office as a “mini Scott Brown race,” a reference to the Republican who beat the political odds in Massachusetts and won Ted Kennedy's seat in the U.S. Senate in a special election last month — and his efforts certainly have a from-nowhere feel to them. When asked where he’s from, he often leaves out his childhood in Highland Park and instead tells people, “I have five generations buried before me in Avinger.” He recalls how, shortly after they got married, he showed his wife where in the small town she’d be buried.

“It comes down to the difference between a hungry challenger and an incumbent who is more likely following what his consultants have told him to do,” says JoAnn Fleming, the executive director of Grassroots America We the People, a conservative PAC in Longview that's backing Simpson.

That means Simpson’s campaign is largely about him trying to find places to go and places to speak. He spends almost every afternoon going door to door, asking people to put his signs in their yards and checking in with supporters. He notes almost every interaction in a fat binder, making checks next to the names of supporters and minuses next to Merritt voters. He’s already hit about 1,000 houses and hopes to ramp up the canvassing as the primary draws closer. Simpson’s door-to-door efforts have scored him points with supporters. “His desire to go out and meet people is the old-fashioned shoe-leather campaign,” Fleming says.

But Simpson’s credentials often raise eyebrows. While he served as the mayor of Avinger (pop. 464) from 1993 to 1998, he hasn’t held office since. None of his seven children have attended Longview public schools, and although he’s a very religious, he attends church in Mount Pleasant — outside the district he seeks to represent.

Those things don’t sit well with some of the guys in the breakfast crowds. “You don’t have a tie to schools; you don’t have a tie to church. How much of a feel do you have for the district?” asks Gaylon "Kahuna" Butler.

At another regular breakfast club — the nook at the Valero gas station — about 10 or so men drink coffee and listen to Simpson give his pitch before asking whom he’s running against. When it turns out to be Merritt, one of them turns away. “We all know Tommy,” he says, shaking his head at Simpson. “Yeah, we know him very well.” But the others kept listening and asking about his platform.

"We must stay with conservatism"

The Merritt family’s local status can make it difficult for Simpson to breakthrough. Even some of his supporters feel a little guilty. Take Johnny Gathright, a local pawnshop owner who’s supporting Simpson. “It’s hard for me. [Merritt’s] a guy I grew up with,” he says, explaining why he's letting Merritt put a sign in front of his business, despite backing his opponent. “I have this thing about longstanding loyalty, even though I don’t agree with Tommy on a whole lot of stuff.”

“Tommy Merritt’s going to be hard to beat anywhere because he has such a loyal following,” explains Karen Wilkerson, the primary administrator for the Democratic Party in Smith County. “I mean, there are people who show up just to vote for Tommy.” According to Wilkerson, Democrats in the district have been known to vote in Republican primaries to ensure well-known candidates like Merritt get elected.

That’s why conservatives tend to like Simpson. “He appears to have the temperament and has the core knowledge of how policy should come from a set of beliefs,” Fleming says.

Merritt has always drawn opposition from his fellow Republicans, but the complaints are different now. Last session, he was part of the 11-member Republican bloc that toppled Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and all but installed Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. His vote to let illegal immigrants attend Texas colleges at in-state tuition rates didn't win him many conservative friends. And while Merritt adamantly argues that he supports voter ID, Simpson and Fleming, among other Republicans, believe he hasn’t done enough to advocate for the issue.

Simpson has already received endorsements from much of the area’s Republican leadership. And while Gregg County Republican Party chair Keith Rothra is loath to take sides in primaries, he says, “The Republican Party is in a process of looking back at conservative roots. We must stay with conservatism unashamedly, unapologetically.” That’s not exactly an endorsement for a representative known for his “maverick” status.

Merritt says the race is his to lose, but as the Tea Party movement sweeps through Texas, it remains to be seen if old-style local politics can beat ideological fervor. “If David Simpson wins the election, then there is a new base in Texas,” Merritt says.

As of mid-February, Simpson and Merritt were close in terms of cash on hand, with $30,543 and $56,617, respectively. Both candidates come from wealthy families, and while Merritt is adamant that Simpson's has greater capacity, rumors abound that Simpson’s father won’t be giving much more than the $20,000 he’s already put in. “It took my dad a long time to get on board with me running,” Simpson acknowledges. “My immediate family was supportive, but not my father, who owns most of our business.”

And, interestingly, Simpon’s religious support is something of an obstacle when comes to fundraising. “They just believe that God’s going to raise me up. I’m grateful for that, and I do believe that’s true. But I also believe God uses means," Simpson says. "So I’d like to see a $500 check."

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Politics State government 2010 elections East Texas Republican Party Of Texas Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature