LUMBERTON, Tex. — GOP voters in Hardin County might be scratching their heads this primary season.
The tortured redistricting process this year put them in a new district, and now two members of the Texas House are competing for their support: James White, a freshman who swept into office with the Tea Party in 2010, and Mike Hamilton, a nine-year veteran who leads the House Licensing Committee.
And the candidates are circulating two very similar mailers, citing the same source, each accusing the other of being the “second-most liberal” Republican in the Texas House.
Turns out that at two different times — in White’s case, when he had only been in the Legislature a few months in April 2011, in Hamilton’s case after votes taken in the 2009 legislative session — the Baker Institute has bestowed that title on each of them.
The race in deep south east Texas has the markings of a battle-by-proxy between state leaders who represent different factions of the Republican Party — House Speaker Joe Straus on the side of moderates and Gov. Rick Perry on the side of the conservative movement — and it has drawn considerable interest outside the district. It has the legislators going to the mattresses to prove their conservative bonafides to voters in the newly drawn House District 19.
Statewide officials, following Perry’s lead, have lined up to endorse White, who has also earned the support of conservative organizations like the Eagle Forum and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. The tort reform lobbying powerhouse Texans for Lawsuit Reform has sunk more than $120,000 into his campaign since last fall.
White was one of just 15 lawmakers who did not vote for San Antonio state Rep. Straus for speaker at the start of the last legislative session. He said he could not do so in good faith because the 2009 Legislature, with Straus at the helm, had continued to “kick the can down the road” on important issues like the budget and school finance.
“That was my Berlin wall, my Brandenburg gate moment,” the former social studies teacher said, adding that he was aware his stand made him some enemies. But he rejected the notion that he was “fighting against the Speaker’s team” in his race.
Straus spokesman Jason Embry said the Speaker has appeared at events for both legislators and he "wishes them both the best."
Hamilton has the backing of the Texas Association of Business and Texas Association of Realtors and came into the race with a robust campaign war chest from his decade in the Legislature, including more than $130,000 from TLR from previous years.
He said he was “disappointed” when the governor decided to back his opponent, adding that during his five terms in the Legislature he’s taken votes to make Texas more business friendly, eliminate abortions and balance the budget in tough economic times.
"What's done is done,” he said over a slice of red velvet cake at his Beaumont catfish restaurant. “I don't think it's going to hurt or help anything in this election coming up."
But Perry’s endorsement also reflects a feeling among some in the party’s right wing that Hamilton has not adequately represented its conservative values. David Bellow, a Republican from Lumberton, said that he has supported Hamilton in the past, but White will get his vote on May 29.
“He's not a liberal, but he's not as conservative as we thought,” Bellow said of Hamilton, citing his support of a gambling bill and an early vote against a bill reforming the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association in 2011. (Hamilton later supported a different version of the TWIA legislation.)
Others in the district scoffed at the idea that the campaign represents a larger narrative about divisions in the state GOP.
Benny Fogleman, who runs an insurance company in Livingston and chairs the Polk County GOP, said the very competitive race has been about which candidate has made a better and deeper impression on their new constituents.
Bellow said the outside interest in the race came from outrage over Hamilton’s move into the district to challenge White. The candidates have differing views on who should rightfully claim the new district. After the district was drawn for White, Hamilton decided that he wanted to continue to represent Hardin County, and he moved to a home he already owned in Lumberton, where his two children went to school. That has prompted accusations — which Hamilton denies — of carpetbagging from White’s supporters.
"If you look at the GOP website, it lists me as the incumbent, not him,” Hamilton said.
It’s been the candidates, not voters, who have made redistricting an issue in the election, said Kent Batman, Hardin County GOP chairman. He said negative messages coming from both sides were disappointing.
He said that may be because, despite their divergent outside backing, as Republicans, their records on issues that matter to voters in the district aren’t that different.
“There's very little as far as total number of votes that they differ on,” said Batman, who received the conflicting “second most liberal” mailers over the weekend from both candidates. “That's the frustration.”
Despite the strained relations between the candidates — and the area’s long history of racial tensions — supporters on each side say race has not been an issue in the campaigns.
When he was elected in 2010, White became one of two black Republicans in the Legislature. One recent Saturday, he spent the afternoon campaigning in Jasper, where almost 15 years ago, a black man was dragged to death by three white men in a pickup truck, a murder that inspired federal and state hate crimes laws.
The location’s significance was not lost on White, but he called any suggestion that race might influence the outcome of the election — even in an 80 percent Anglo district — “disrespectful” to East Texas voters.
“I'm not even thinking about it. I don’t do racial politics,” he said. “If I am not successful, it won’t be because of race.”