You’d be hard-pressed to find a Democrat running for office in East Texas. Aware they didn’t stand a chance with a “D” next to their names after Barack Obama won the 2008 election, the blue dogs ran to the Republican Party.
But state Rep. Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville, who switched to the GOP after 10 years in office as a Democrat, finds himself still answering for his Democratic past. And now that Nacogdoches County has been added to the redrawn House District 11, he faces new constituents and an opponent, Travis Clardy, a lawyer from Nacogdoches, who has tried to position himself as the conservative alternative. Also in the race is Tony Sevilla, a farmer from Alto. The winner of the GOP primary will win the HD-11 seat, as no other party is fielding candidates in the race.
“I’ve been very conservative for a long time, sort of following the path of Ronald Reagan,” Hopson said. The incumbent has a few advantages over his opponents — money and support from political groups in Austin, a good reputation with local and state leaders and a well-known name.
But Clardy has his own advantage — geography.
“The conservative trend definitely favors me,” said Clardy, who believes his conservative stance on smaller government, less regulation and more local control will win over voters.“The political [histories] of my opponents are going to prove to be a real negative on their chances."
Sevilla is running a quiet grassroots campaign and said his strategy is to create the “illusion” he’s not a threat in order to avoid political attacks. “I wanted to make sure Hopson and Clardy didn’t take me serious,” he said.
His political experience includes three interning stints at the Texas Capitol, one for a Republican and two for Democratic Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo.
“My parents have no money and no political connects, but I knew I needed more political experience, and so I took the position with [Zaffirini],” Sevilla wrote in an email. “I make no regrets because I now know the ins and outs of government and politics.”
Redistricting cut out two counties in the the HD-11 that Hopson represents now and added Nacogdoches County, Clardy’s home turf. Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, ranked the most conservative Republican in the House by a handful of political groups, currently represents Nacogdoches. It includes 38 percent of the new HD-11’s total population and a fiercely competitive sheriff’s race that is likely to increase voter turnout in the county.
HD-11 still includes Rusk and Cherokee counties, both predominantly rural with residents familiar with Hopson's political history.
“I’ve not seen anything Chuck Hopson has done wrong in the last few years that he’s been a Republican,” said Eddie Lee, a Cherokee County constable who supports Hopson. Lee describes the candidate as a family man who stood by his wife when she had cancer and frequently lends his support to community events and charities.
But some voters haven’t forgotten Hopson’s past, particularly the time he skipped town to Oklahoma with other Democrats in order to halt a controversial vote on redistricting led by Republicans in 2003.
“We’re just hoping and praying that we can oust Hopson this time,” said Josie Schoolcraft, former chairman of the Cherokee County GOP, who says Hopson’s voting record isn’t conservative enough.
Hopson says he opposes abortion rights. "But then he says it’s okay for a woman to have an abortion if she’s raped, incest or the mother’s life is in danger,” Schoolcraft said. “That’s not pro-life, that’s pro-choice.”
Answering critics, Hopson points to his voting record last legislative session. Alongside other Republicans, he voted to balance the state budget without raising taxes, pass a voter ID law and oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants in so-called sanctuary cities. He was also chairman of the General Investigating and Ethics Committee and has received strong support from the Republican leadership, particularly from House Speaker Joe Straus and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.
Hopson has also received endorsements from Texas Alliance for Life, an anti-abortion organization; the Texas State and National Rifle associations; the Texas Farm Bureau; and the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association.
Clardy has received endorsements from the Young Conservatives of Texas and Empower Texans. The owner of a law firm, Clardy said he’s had broad exposure to state laws related to oil and gas, water and natural resources, trucking and health care that gives him an advantage over most would-be House freshmen.
Although he’s not putting out yard signs or raising money, Sevilla said he’s gathered momentum among younger voters over the last year by speaking to people at local events like basketball and football games.
The campaign finance reports from Jan. 15 and April 30 also show the dynamics of the election at play. Hopson received nearly twice as much in contributions than Clardy, $213,850 compared with $107,350 during that period. Sevilla received $645 total. About half of Hopson’s contributions came from political action committees and trade associations. Excluding the money both men received from such groups, Clardy received nearly $9,000 more in individual contributions than Hopson.
The largest single contribution to Hopson’s campaign during that time, $14,500, came from the House Leadership Fund, run by the speaker of the House. Hopson, the only pharmacist in the House, also received $10,000 from PHARMPAC, $6,000 from Texans for Lawsuit Reform and $2,500 from Sen. Kevin Eltife’s campaign. The largest PAC contribution Clardy received was $1,000 from the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, whose former president also volunteers for his campaign.
Hopson says the financial support from the speaker’s PAC and other Austin-based groups is an advantage that shows he’s part of the state leadership. “This gives me the ability when elected to get more things done for East Texas,” he said.
Clardy and his supporters said they aren’t worried about Hopson’s money or endorsements from Austin. “Their local members all support me, but the Austin organization goes with the friendly incumbent because that’s the way Austin operates,” Clardy said.