This year, the candidates in the House District 7 GOP primary race are the same, but the roles are reversed, with Merritt now looking to unseat the incumbent Simpson. And East Texas GOP leaders again see a close race.
Merritt, also of Longview, is a veteran politician with a reputation of making the necessary political moves to bring perks back to his district. As a freshman in the House, Simpson became known for voting in line with the principles of limited government — but not necessarily in line with the Republican Party. Both candidates are attempting to use their opponent’s purported strengths — Simpson’s self-described “Constitutionalist” values and Merritt’s record of bringing money back to the district — against each other.
In the 2010 election, Simpson, a Tea Party favorite, upset Merritt, winning 53 percent of the vote to Merritt's 47 percent. Merritt said he underestimated Simpson, whose political experience included a five-year stint as mayor of Avinger, a small town east of HD-7.
Despite the same names in the HD-7 race, the dynamics have changed. (There are no other candidates in HD-7, so the Republican primary effectively determines the overall winner.) Simpson now has a voting record that he and his opponent can point to, for better or worse. And redistricting also added territory in Upshur County — composed of mostly rural cattle land — to the district, which has both candidates going door to door in new areas to search for votes.
"I am ashamed of David Simpson,” said Merritt, taking issue with how Simpson voted and represented the district during the 82nd legislative session.
None of the bills Simpson authored during the session passed, but he stood out among the House freshmen by breaking from the GOP on key votes and authoring the “anti-groping” TSA bill, which had initially gained support of two-thirds of the Legislature and was reconsidered during the special session, but never passed. He was one of few Republicans to vote against the budget for 2012-13, he said, because it contained “$500 million in pork for special interests.”
His tactics in the House sometimes appeared extreme, such as when he expressed his opposition to a statewide smoking ban proposed by another Republican by attempting to also ban perfume and cologne. Some House members accused Simpson of breaking the rules of decorum.
“People thought I committed political suicide, but I think in the long run I gained respect,” said Simpson, who added that he’s emphasizing to constituents what he learned as a freshman in the House: “You don’t have to go along to get along.”
But Simpson failed to represent the interests of East Texans, said Merritt, who added, “I do not have a cause that is greater than my district.”
Ken Ambrose, chairman of the Upshur County GOP, said few benefits have been reaped from Simpson’s first term. “What do you have to show for us sending you to Austin for two years?” he said of Simpson.
Ambrose emphasized that Merritt is native to East Texas, while Simpson moved there from the wealthy Dallas enclave of Highland Park. And he said the contributions Merritt has made to the district — including widened highways, funding for cancer centers and hospital beds for veterans — are easily recognizable and help constituents benefit from the taxes they’ve already paid to the state.
Simpson argues that times have changed and constituents aren’t looking for a representative to “bring home the bacon” — they’re looking for someone who will stop government from restraining the personal liberties and freedom of the people, he said.
His supporters agree.
“Mr. Simpson, while he’s not popular with some of the establishment politicians in Austin, he is popular with the people,” said JoAnn Fleming, the executive director of Grassroots America - We the People, which advocates for the protection of individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Fleming commended Simpson’s strong stance on keeping taxpayer money away from special-interest groups and said he understands the need to get government back to its “constitutional core” by limiting spending to required functions of state government.
Simpson said that Merritt “has a lot of name ID, but it’s not always good name ID.”
Merritt was nicknamed the “Prince of Pork” by Empower Texans, a conservative lobbyist group. In campaign blasts against Merritt, Empower Texans emphasized a $4.3 million helicopter that Merritt helped earmark for the Department of Public Safety in Longview while in the House.
And Merritt’s critics are quick to point out that he was also one of only two Republicans to vote against a voter ID bill in 2007. Merritt said he voted against the bill because it was “watered down,” and pointed out he voted for the passage of voter ID bills twice in other sessions.
“I am a proven leader,” Merritt said of his time in the House, emphasizing his experience as chairman of the House committees on public safety and energy resources.
Merritt’s most notable endorsements are from the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Hospital PAC and the Texas Association of Realtors.
Many of the GOP precinct chairs in Upshur County have endorsed Simpson, leading some to speculate that Simpson has an advantage in the district’s newly added area.
Ambrose, who supports Merritt, disagreed and said the nomination in Upshur is still up for grabs.
One thing is certain: HD-7 voters can expect an entirely different agenda depending on which candidate they choose.
Simpson said he’ll revive the anti-groping TSA bill and push a new agenda to increase “transparency in procedure and process” by making conference committee decisions by members of the House and Senate public. He also wants to divert money for business incentive programs back to public education.
Merritt said he’ll work to ensure spending cuts don’t disproportionately affect the district. He said he’ll work to lower electricity rates for the district and secure water rights to help East Texans profit on water sent to metropolitan areas downstream.
As for fundraising, the candidates have effectively traded positions since the last election. At this point of the election cycle in 2010, Simpson had received less than $1,500 in contributions, while Merritt had raised $78,350. According to January’s campaign-finance reports — Simpson reported $81,155 from more than 400 donors, and Merritt, $16,570 from fewer than 100 donors.