State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, though just a freshman, had no problem garnering attention in the Capitol last year. But observers developed wildly differing opinions of the 30-year-old who rose from obscurity to a prominent place in the state's Tea Party constellation.
Now, the spotlight on the Bedford Republican is also a target.
As Stickland — either a principled conservative or obstructionist, depending on whom you ask — seeks another term in Austin, he is facing some backlash from mainstream Republicans who hope to win a spot from their rival faction in the party’s last urban stronghold.
The question swirling in Tarrant County is this: Can Stickland’s opponent, Andy Cargile, 67, a local school board trustee and retired high school principal, get Republican voters — and donors — excited?
With the primary still a month away, that’s unanswered. But plenty of observers agree on this notion: Stickland’s critics could not have chosen a more contrasting opponent.
“You’ve got two different candidates, and two different generations and two different philosophies,” said Tom Wilder, Tarrant County’s long time district clerk and a Republican who has not endorsed either candidate.
The difference between the candidates is “night and day,” said Julie McCarty, president of the NE Tarrant Tea Party, which supports Stickland. “They might as well be in different parties.”
Stickland was the House's most conservative voter last session, according to a study by Mark Jones, chairman of Rice University's political science department. The lawmaker regularly drew the ire of establishment Republicans by voting nay on key legislation and by adding controversial amendments in attempts to undermine measures he opposed.
Last April, for instance, he led a cohort of House freshmen who launched an unsuccessful strike on the budget.
Citing such actions, Stickland’s detractors have cast him as an obstructionist.
“I don’t want him someone in Austin who is going to vote no on everything,” said Ellen Jones of Euless, a board member of Texas Parent PAC, a group that focuses on educational policy and has endorsed Cargile, citing his experience as a school principal and trustee.
Cargile, who has also drawn endorsements from powerful realtor and police groups, echoed that critique. “Sometimes you need to say yes,” he said.
Stickland’s backers shrug off the criticism, saying that his numerous "no" votes were prompted by bad legislation that conflicted with his own ideas, and that he kept his key campaign promise: to vote conservatively and to push legislation that expands personal liberties.
“The establishment would like to say that anyone with a conservative record is a 'no' person,” said Luke Macias, Stickland’s campaign consultant.
Meanwhile, the campaign suggests that Cargile has shunned policy questions, focusing instead on slinging mud.
“He’s just running on this anti-Jonathan Stickland campaign,” Stickland said.
Cargile’s emails and mailers deride his opponent as a high school dropout. Stickland quit high school after his junior year to test for his GED and enter the workforce, his campaign says.
“Who do you think is best for Austin?” a mailer sent this week asked, juxtaposing Cargile, the “former high school principal,” and Stickland, the “high school drop out.”
“As soon as he got in the race, it turned ugly,” McCarty said of Cargile. “It’s going to come back to bite him.”
Cargile’s campaign has also circulated Facebook comments from 2011 in which Stickland appeared to bash the local school system, while endorsing gay marriage and labor unions. When asked, Stickland did not confirm or deny writing the comments, saying only that they do not reflect his views.
On the issues, Cargile, said he practices fiscal conservatism, though he sometimes strays from ideology. In a recent mailer, he called himself “an old fashioned pragmatist” who supports a “rigorous cost-benefit analysis of any new proposal or legislation.”
In an interview, Cargile said he would focus on education if elected and would look to bolster infrastructure for roads and water, but he could not offer specifics — at least not now — saying he needed to study the budget and weigh all the facts.
“We’re data-driven,” he said. “I want to hear from both sides and learn what’s best for [House District] 92.”
Like anyone trying to unseat an incumbent, Cargile faces an uphill battle. Stickland has endorsements from prominent and deep-pocketed groups such as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Texas Right to Life and Young Conservatives of Texas. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has also voiced his support.
Earlier this month, Stickland reported raising about $188,600 during the second half of 2013, and he entered this year with nearly $220,000 in his campaign account. Cargile, meanwhile, raised about $21,400 and has less than $7,800 in his account. Fresh campaign finance reports in that and other races are due on Monday with the Texas Ethics Commission.
Still, Wilder, the district clerk, said Cargile has raised enough to have a fighting chance — particularly if he sees a late infusion of cash. If Cargile ultimately fails, Wilder added, establishment Republicans will only see more difficulties in their next attempt to unseat Stickland.
“If you’re going to beat an incumbent,” he said, “you’re going to have to beat him the first time.”