WASHINGTON – Who is the next Ralph Hall?
That's the question many Texas Republicans ask when they look at the state’s congressional map.
Hall's loss in May 2014 after 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives was an emotional blow to the close-knit federal delegation, but a point of victory for Tea Party groups that endorsed now-U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Heath.
And so, six months out from the filing deadline, Texas political operatives on the right and the even farther right are analyzing the map in an attempt to identify vulnerable members of the delegation — either to bolster longtime political allies or look for an opportunity to send a Tea Party firebrand to the U.S. Capitol.
According to interviews with more than a dozen state and national operatives, three Texas incumbents are on the minds of Republicans: U.S. Reps. Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi, Pete Sessions of Dallas and Lamar Smith of San Antonio.
U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold
Tea Party operatives see a big window of opportunity with Farenthold, thanks to a a former staffer’s sexual harassment accusations against him.
“If there’s going to be an incumbent that goes down in Texas, I think Blake Farenthold would be No. 1,” said Drew Ryan, the North Texas-based political director of the Madison Project, a Tea Party group.
Republicans anticipate Farenthold will face a crowded primary. The first challenger to surface on the Tea Party radar is ammunitions businessman John Harrington of Shiner. Harrington announced in May, and sources say he has the capacity to self-fund a race.
The primary politics set up an uncomfortable dynamic for Republicans who work toward incumbents’ re-elections. Democrats are making noise about his seat — the 27th Congressional District — but they concede that the heavily Republican district could only be in play for them with Farenthold as the GOP nominee.
Despite the talk of turnover, plenty of Republicans shrug it off, saying Farenthold can bankroll his own re-election campaign and beat back a primary challenge.
They argue there is no pathway for a Democrat in such a Republican district under any circumstances – even with a candidate with strong name identification, like former state Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr., who is mulling a run.
Farenthold spokesman Kurt Bardella brushed off the speculation.
"There is always a lot of bravado about challenging Congressman Farenthold, and every cycle, the voters have responded by re-electing him — most recently with 64 percent of the vote," Bardella wrote in an email. "For any primary challengers, the reality they face is there is very little daylight on issues to separate themselves — Blake has fought aggressively against President Obama's executive amnesty and stood with conservatives on the Oversight Committee investigating the abuses of the Administration."
U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions
The question on Sessions isn’t whether he is the next Ralph Hall. It's "Will he be the next John Carona?"
Sessions’ U.S. House district shared territory with the former Dallas state senator's until Carona fell in a 2014 primary to the Tea Party-backed Don Huffines.
Tea Party activists say that presents an opportunity to challenge an establishment figure. Sessions is of particular interest because he is powerful player on Capitol Hill, with close alliances within Speaker John Boehner's leadership team.
The problem with taking on Sessions is two-fold.
First, he is inoculated because the 32nd Congressional District sits smack in the middle of the Dallas-Fort Worth media market.
The prohibitive cost of broadcast television advertising makes it difficult for potential challengers to build name recognition. Sessions’ 2014 GOP rival, Tea Party favorite Katrina Pierson, lost by a 28-point margin that year.
It's also hard to imagine Sessions will be rusty or caught asleep at the wheel. He is only three years out from steering the U.S. House Republicans' national campaign arm, and it’s unlikely his political instincts will be anything but sharp.
Rumors swirled for weeks that Huffines, the wealthy state senator who unseated Carona, might challenge Sessions.
His chief of staff, Matt Langston, said that wasn't true.
"Sen. Huffines is focused on his work as a Texas state senator and the constituents of Senate District 16," he said in a statement. "He is not considering running for Congress at this time."
In recent days, the speculation shifted to Huffines’ twin brother, Phillip, who said he's heard the rumors but also pushed back against them.
"I've always had an interest in public service, but at this time I'm not running for anything," he wrote in an email.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith
The Tea Party-backed Madison Project endorsed businessman Matt McCall last week in his repeat bid against Smith, who has been in office since 1987. In their previous matchup in 2014, Smith dominated McCall by a 60-34 point margin — but that hasn't stopped Tea Party activists from hoping for a competitive GOP primary in 2016.
Smith's campaign operation is robust and active. Several Texas GOP operatives say he recognized early the trouble Hall was in last cycle; as of his last campaign finance report, Smith had a healthy $750,000 in the bank.
There were early rumors that state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, might consider taking on the 15-term incumbent, but she told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that she was not interested in a run.
"My focus remains on keeping Texas strong and working on the issues critical to Texas families and businesses through my position in the Texas Senate," she said in a statement.
Who's not on the radar: U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson
Generationally, Johnson, R-Plano, fits Hall's profile. He is 84 years old, and his home base of Collin County is a bastion of ambitious conservative talent.
But across the board, GOP consultant after GOP consultant predicted that Johnson would get to leave office gracefully — not be ousted in a primary.
Part of that logic is that Johnson has a better-funded and better-organized operation than Hall did. Johnson sits on over $500,000 in campaign cash and has an active campaign team.
And while Hall served in World War II, there is some reluctance to politically attack Johnson, a Vietnam War veteran who was tortured as a prisoner of war and spent years at the Hanoi Hilton.