In 2012, Steve Toth of The Woodlands won election in House District 15 after a so-called RINO hunt. He beat state Rep. Rob Eissler in the Republican primary, campaigning in part on the idea that Eissler was insufficiently conservative for HD-15’s suburban voters. Two years earlier, and several counties to the north, David Simpson of Longview beat Rep. Tommy Merritt on a similar political safari.
It’s a common strategy in Texas. Candidates have to distinguish themselves for the benefit of voters, and in a Republican primary, one popular refrain is to label the other guy as a RINO — a Republican in Name Only. But those accused of ideological impurity — a criticism heard in Texas and national politics alike — argue that conservatives who can get things done are more valuable than conservative zealots. That debate animates a number of Republican primary races on the state ballot this year, including 24 contested House primaries involving Republican incumbents. Five GOP senators face primary opponents.
This is a normal mode of argument in intraparty races. Texas Democrats, when they were overwhelmingly dominant in state politics, were divided into conservatives and liberals, and they tangled regularly over who had the real handle on representative government. Democrats still have their share of intraparty fights — some of this year’s House races in El Paso are examples. But they're the minority party. Republicans, in full control of state government, find themselves in the latest round of a long fight over which members of their party ought to be in the driver’s seat.
The GOP took over the state Senate in the mid-1990s and gained control of the House in 2003. They haven’t lost a statewide election since 1994. During the past decade, much of the competition in state politics has taken place in the GOP primary. That’s where it is this year, too.
Some contests were predictable when lawmakers were still in session last year. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, was the only Republican in the House to vote against new restrictions on abortion and access to women’s clinics. It was no surprise when she drew Bonnie Parker, an anti-abortion conservative, as a GOP primary opponent.
Populist Republicans had a big year in 2010 and more or less held their ground in 2012. This year, the challenges to incumbents come from both sides of the GOP.
Not everything is about ideological control. Politics is competitive, and challengers look for weaknesses. “I’m convinced in some races that incumbent fever has set in, and they are just ignoring constituents,” said Luke Macias, a Republican consultant. “And there is some anti-incumbent sentiment.”
State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, a former legislative staffer who beat an incumbent lawmaker in 2012, travels in a coterie of freshman and sophomore conservatives in the House. He’s being challenged in the primaries by Skip Ogle, an establishment candidate running in part on business issues.
Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, is a Tea Party conservative with an establishment opponent, Andy Cargile, a former high school principal coming off of a school board. Stickland prides himself on being “the most conservative representative of the 83rd session”; Cargile, on his website, says he is “driven by principles, not politics.”
In another part of Tarrant County, state Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, drew opposition this year from Tony Tinderholt, an Air Force veteran endorsed by the Empower Texans PAC. The establishment is with Patrick, most recently in the form of an endorsement from the Texas Association of Business’ political action committee.
And Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland — a nine-term legislator and a bona fide member of House Speaker Joe Straus’ inner circle — has a conservative opponent in Cullen Crisp, whose beef with the incumbent seems to be Keffer’s incumbency.
In recent cycles, the themes were clear. Straus himself was a major topic for Republican infighting in 2010, the first election cycle after he unseated Tom Craddick, R-Midland, with a bloc made up of moderate Republicans and most of the House’s Democrats. Straus has been pigeonholed — and vilified, to some extent — as a moderate ever since that race.
Two years later, in 2012, some of the conservatives elected in 2010 were put on the defensive after the Legislature cut education funding.
One example was a race between state Rep. Bennett Ratliff, who served on the Coppell ISD board before winning election as a public education advocate, and Matt Rinaldi, who lost that contest. Ratliff returns this year with a stack of endorsements from local and state officials and groups. Rinaldi, calling the incumbent “one of the most liberal Republican representatives in Austin,” is back for a rematch. The budget will probably be a topic of debate.
The budget will probably provide fodder for other primary races this year; 25 Republicans voted against its adoption last May, many of them complaining about increased spending.
“Do something that Republicans are proud of and there’s nothing to point at,” said Macias, who is helping several candidates who consider their incumbent challengers too moderate. He points to the budget vote as prime territory for argument and, in particular, to budget votes by legislators who are now running for higher offices: “Everybody who wanted to move up voted against it,” he said.
The note sounded from establishment Republicans then — and again, in this election cycle — was that the state needed to replace cuts in education and to increase spending on roads and other infrastructure. It’s a political dance between Republican voters’ desires for low-priced, efficient government on one hand and for functional programs and infrastructure on the other.
“It seems like the moderate challengers are much more, you know, ‘The incumbent doesn’t get along with people,’ and the conservative challengers are trying to tackle specific votes,” said Jordan Berry, a Republican consultant to several candidates. Campaign themes not evident now might become s0 as the primaries approach. “Now we’re two or three weeks from a lot of paid advertising, and some other things might come out.”