State Rep. Chuck Hopson, of Jacksonville, got everything he hoped for when he switched parties to seek reelection as a Republican, with two exceptions. One is named Michael Banks. The other is named Allan Cain.
A Democratic incumbent less than four months ago, he's now trying to win his first GOP primary against two underfunded but serious challengers. "Our goal is to do this thing without a runoff," says a hopeful Hopson, on his way to a Chamber of Commerce function in one part of the district while his wife hit another, in another county, and his sister-in-law zipped off to a third gathering in yet another county.
Hopson has represented East Texas' District 11, which includes Cherokee, Henderson, Panola, and Rusk counties, since 2001 and has been fighting for his political life almost from the start. He's almost always been fighting Republicans: His last serious primary challenge as a Democrat was in 2000, the year he was first elected. He won that contest by 382 votes out of 13,734 cast and got 53 percent in the general election. Hopson didn't know it at the time, but that amounted to a landslide in HD-11. He had no opponents in 2002, but then the siege began. Hopson won the 2004 general election with 52.7 percent. The winning margin in 2006 was 51 percent. Two years ago, he won with 49.3 percent, beating Republican Brian Walker by 120 votes out of 52,863 cast. You can see the building blocks of his party-switch in the election numbers, and there's also this: Without the Libertarian candidate who got 875 votes in the '08 race, Hopson might well have lost.
Still, he shocked the political world in November, saying he'd decided (after a series of fundraisers as a Democrat) that he would run as a Republican for reelection. The Switch remains the biggest issue in this year's race, though it could play in his favor: Voters generally seem to like him, and most of them choose Republicans in most other races on the ballot. Hopson and his new Republican consultant, Bryan Eppstein, orchestrated a coming-out party featuring prominent GOP leaders in Texas, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples (who represented the area in the House and Senate), and House Speaker Joe Straus. Even Brian Walker — the guy who lost to Hopson by a smidgen in 2008 — now endorses him.
His decision was terrific news for Republicans in Austin and beyond, tilting the narrow balance of power in the Texas House one notch their way; what was a 76-74 Republican majority suddenly became a 77-73 vote edge that makes it more difficult for Texas Democrats to take control (Democratic Rep. David Farabee's decision to retire from his seat in conservative Wichita Falls will probably add to the GOP majority, too). The tilt is especially important to partisans right now — lawmakers will draw political districts next year, and the party in power has a better chance of getting its way. Advantage: GOP.
Some local Republicans, however, are finding it hard to accommodate a pest they've spent years trying to exterminate. Three State Republican Executive Committee members, three of the four county GOP chairs in the district, and former state Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, all signed a letter saying "Chuck Hopson is a Democrat" and "There are only two real Republicans in this race: Allan Cain and Dr. Michael Banks." It's been printed up, with unfavorable rankings for Hopson on the other side from the Texas Eagle Forum, Texas Right to Life, the Heritage Alliance, and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, and sent to voters in the district.
"This district has been kind of 50-50 for the last four election cycles," says Cain, a former Panola County GOP chairman who was born in and still lives in Carthage. "I haven't seen any evidence that people are going to change their views just because he changed parties."
Hopson's incumbency is one advantage. Money is another. He's spent $283,091 so far and had $127,664 left with just over a week to go. Cain reported spending $34,333, with $4,336 in the till. Banks spent $25,689, had no money on hand, and had outstanding loans of $85,805.
Hopson's GOP bonafides, or the lack of them, provide the main line of attack for both of his opponents. On many issues, he's voted the same way a Republican would. But he went with the Democrats to Ardmore, Oklahoma, when they were breaking a quorum to block Republican redistricting plans in 2003. And Cain likes to point out that Hopson "last voted in the Democratic primary so he must have supported either Hillary Clinton or Barrack Obama."
"The pushback on Hopson for switching parties has been massive," says Banks, a Jacksonville dentist and former school board member who has known the incumbent — mostly on friendly terms — for years. "His ads are making everyone mad. Early voting is big. ... Everyone feels like it will be a runoff."
Banks says some Democrats might show up in the GOP primary, just to vote against the guy who left them. "They might go for me, thinking I'd be easy to pick off," he says. He's confident that a primary would work out for him. If Cain makes the runoff, his Panola County home base is no match for Banks' Cherokee County base, Banks says. What if it's him and Hopson, both from Cherokee County? "There's no way Cain's voters will change their minds and vote for Chuck."
He's betting voters, to use an old political line, would rather vote for someone who's been a Republican all along than for a fresh convert. "That's why he had to bring in Cornyn and all of them," Banks says. "He's not even a RINO [Republican in Name Only]. He's a Democrat."