Depending on who you ask, it was either a remarkable outpouring of grassroots frustration — or a complete bust.
Some number of protesters — about 75, according to the local paper — gathered outside what was billed as the Navarro County kickoff of state Rep. Byron Cook's re-election campaign late last week. After much ruckus and finger pointing, police cited two of the anti-Cook protestors, spawning denunciations of "Lord Byron's speech-squelchers" by their cohorts.
The noise is not expected to subside in House District 8, where conservative activists have painted a target on Cook's back as he ramps up his bid for an eighth term, portending a rancorous race even if it remains to be seen if he is really in danger. His critics on the right believe he is the most vulnerable GOP member of the Legislature up for re-election next year, and allies of House Speaker Joe Straus are paying special attention to Cook's race as they seek to protect Republican incumbents.
"It’s no mystery: Yes, it’s a very high priority," said outgoing state Rep. Jim Keffer of Eastland, who co-chairs a political action committee focused on keeping lawmakers such as Cook in their seats.
Cook's campaign believes it faces a familiar political song and dance: Organized by influential conservative group Empower Texans, well-funded agitators from outside the district are trying to gin up a competitive primary that will ultimately prove to be a waste of their money and time. Ahead of the Navarro County kickoff Friday, Cook went on the offensive with a cartoonish mail piece warning voters about "Halloween political tricks by outside dark money groups," singling out Empower Texans for already spending "hundreds of thousands of dollars falsely attacking me."
"It’s bullying, really," said Bryan Eppstein, Cook's political consultant. "It’s outside innuendo, outside distortion, outside dishonesty, but people in these counties know Byron Cook, and they’re appreciative of the job he does."
To his foes, Cook also represents a major trophy as a close ally of Straus, a perennial target of conservative activists. Cook is one of the few remaining members of the original Polo Road Gang, the 11 Republican lawmakers who privately met before the 2009 session to unite behind Straus for speaker. Among that group was Keffer, who said the anti-Straus crowd "kind of shifted their target" to Cook after he announced in June he would not seek re-election.
Cook has a young, untested challenger in 25-year-old Thomas McNutt, best known for his family's ownership of the Corsicana-based Collin Street Bakery — established in 1896 — which bills itself as a world-renowned fruitcake purveyor. McNutt's only experience running for office appears to be an unsuccessful campaign for student body president at Texas A&M University in 2012. Urging students to go "Nuts for McNutt," the then-senior lost a topsy-turvy runoff in which the first-place finisher was initially disqualified, then recaptured the election on appeal, according to the student newspaper.
At least one prominent Republican in the district does not believe McNutt should be counted out.
"No question Thomas McNutt is a viable candidate," said Chris Baldwin, chairman of the Republican Party of Navarro County. "I think we’re very fortunate that we have two viable candidates that represent two viable groups in the community like we see going on statewide, nationally."
Cook's critics are hoping to exploit that divide, citing instances in the past session alone where he was crosswise with the GOP base. As the chairman of the State Affairs Committee — a powerful panel with a far-reaching purview — Cook often shoulders the blame for conservative priorities that do not advance to the floor.
In recent weeks, Cook's foes have received an assist from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who have openly lamented that legislation banning so-called sanctuary cities could not pass the Legislature this year. Cook's committee has more than once stopped short of advancing such proposals.
“Byron Cook is out of step with his constituents when it comes to illegal immigration, when it comes to their First Amendment rights, when it comes to protecting the unborn and when it comes to the Republicans in Texas taking on unions," said Luke Macias, the political consultant for McNutt. "That is a really bad place for any Republican incumbent to be."
Emily Kebodeaux, political director of the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life, said HD 8 is the "most important race for us" in 2016. Chief among the group's problems with Cook is his defense of an exception to the state's abortion ban that allows for the practice based on fetal abnormalities after 20 weeks.
"He is the least pro-life Republican in the House," Kebodeaux said. "The damage that Byron causes is because of his chairmanship of state affairs," through which most anti-abortion legislation is routed.
Cook's campaign is countering such claims by touting the recent decision by three other anti-abortion groups to name him a "Champion for Life." In giving the award to Cook, the Texans for Life Coalition specifically said it is Cook's "Christian decency and unwavering commitment to protecting life that makes recent unwarranted criticisms by some organizations so dishonest."
The heated back-and-forth is already wearing on Cook supporters, who have done little to mask their disdain for how the race is shaping up. "Everyone is pretty much fed up with the outside influence that they’re trying to bring into the district," said Eric Meyers, a Cook supporter and president of Oil City Iron Works in Corsicana.
In a show of frustration, Meyers recently took to Twitter to show off a photo of dog poop he had placed atop a mail piece from Texas Right to Life, which has endorsed McNutt. On Monday, Meyers called the gag "totally a satire" — Cook's antagonists had reacted with swift indignation — but noted "a lot of people feel like that."
Baldwin, who is neutral in the race as the leader of the county GOP, said he hopes local Republicans eventually come together to support the nominee. That candidate will likely coast to victory in the solid-red North Texas district, whose four counties broke for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by margins of more than 2-to-1 in the 2012 presidential race.
"I would be misguided if I was not concerned," Baldwin said of the tenor of the race so far. "The language — and this is a topic of conversation — is important. The actions are equally — if not more — important."