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Bucking Tradition, Incumbents Seek to Influence Legislative Primaries

With the primary election less than three months away, a handful of legislators are considering just how much they want to throw their weight around in the contests.

The Texas Capitol, May 15, 2015.

Months before the filing deadline Monday for the March primaries, one freshman state lawmaker was already working to shape their outcomes.

In August, state Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville picked sides in one of only two open-seat races for the state Senate this election cycle, endorsing David Simpson over Bryan Hughes in Senate District 1. Two months later, she organized a forum for candidates vying to replace state Sen. Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, who is not seeking re-election. And with primary season only now starting to heat up, she is planning to assert her influence in other competitive nominating contests. 

"I will likely get more involved in other races as well," said Burton, who was elected just over a year ago. "I’m looking at all of them.”

She is not alone. With the primary election less than three months away, a handful of legislators are considering just how much they want to throw their weight around in the contests, an uncommon but not-unheard-of practice that bucks tradition — and comes with its own set of political risks and rewards.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick brought attention to the practice earlier this year, when he reversed his promise to stay out of primaries and endorsed six GOP senators for re-election — as well as Hughes, a state representative from Mineola. On the other side of the Capitol, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus also plans to support Republicans seeking re-election or open seats. 

Among some lawmakers' considerations is whether to make endorsements against Capitol colleagues in re-election fights, a particularly eyebrow-raising move with limited precedent. Sherri Greenberg, a Democrat who served in the Texas House from 1991 to 2001, said such a scenario seldom unfolded during her tenure. 

"At that time, we really did not see that in the Texas Legislature," said Greenberg, now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "In fact, you really didn’t see, for instance, others getting involved even in races with incumbents in the other party."

But times have changed, Greenberg said, pointing to the increasing polarization within the GOP.

"The big divisions that we see in the Republican Party are not just nationally," Greenberg said. "We see that right here in Texas, and that has fueled, I think, in recent years, this situation where you see even within the Republican Party, an incumbent endorsing against a fellow Republican incumbent."

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford did just that last week, calling in to a West Texas radio show to endorse former state Rep. Jim Landtroop of Plainview in his challenge to state Rep. John Frullo of Lubbock. Asked why he would get involved in West Texas politics, Stickland said many of the decisions Frullo has made have had consequences statewide.

"My people are directly impacted on 95 percent of the votes that John Frullo takes, which is why I have an interest in this," Stickland told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty. "I have personally been trying to educate the voters because what we have is — we have a situation where politicians have been campaigning as one thing but then legislating as something else."

Another lawmaker who could follow in Stickland's footsteps is state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas.

"I’m keeping my options right now on most races," Huffines said in an interview Thursday. "There are some that I might be involved with if it affects Senate District 16.”

Huffines said the Republican primaries he could wade into include the one in House District 114, where state Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas faces a challenge from Dallas lawyer Dan Morenoff. Huffines called Morenoff the "true conservative in the race" but declined to characterize his remarks as an official endorsement for now. 

Villalba's campaign declined to comment on Huffines' remarks.

Stickland said he plans to be "very involved" in open-seat races, one of which he has already made an endorsement in: Senate District 1, where Stickland is backing Simpson, a state representative from Longview, over Hughes. While he does not have any current plans to pick sides in re-election battles beside the Frullo-Landtroop contest, he did not rule out future involvement. 

At the end of the day, Stickland said, "I just want honesty." 

"If John Frullo were campaigning as a moderate Republican, I probably wouldn't be saying anything," Stickland said, reiterating his belief that some candidates are misrepresenting their views to voters. "It's amazing how many people look like Jonathan Stickland on their website."

Stickland argues that it is not just tea party-backed lawmakers like him who are getting involved in primaries. He suspects his primary challenger, Bedford pastor Scott Fisher, was recruited — and is being informally supported — by a more moderate Republican, state Rep. Dan Flynn of Van. Flynn said Thursday that Fisher is a longtime friend, but he does not endorse in primaries and the "only race that I'm concerned" about is his own.

The lawmakers' forays into races outside their districts are not always well-received. Burton, for example, was effectively rebuked for her forum by the Bell County GOP, which warned candidates against participating in an event hosted by an "outside source." A number of campaigns chose not to participate, privately questioning Burton's motivations. 

Burton shares a political consultant with one of the candidates for Fraser's seat as well as Simpson.

Then there are more practical considerations for incumbents thinking of getting involved in primaries. They always run the risk of getting on the bad side of a colleague who ultimately wins re-election, potentially complicating their ability collaborate at the Capitol.

"It makes it hard for them when it comes time to do the work for something that has to do with their own district," said Craig Murphy, a Republican strategist working for Stickland's primary challenger, Scott Fisher. "They find that everybody mistrusts them, everybody is angry with them and they can’t get votes for things that are noncontroversial in their own district because they got people all over the Legislature who don’t like what they did in the last campaign."

Lawmakers like Stickland largely brush off such concerns, saying they did not come to Austin to make friends and the best thing they can do for their constituents is help elect like-minded representatives. Plus, among many tea party-backed legislators, there is a sense that years of tradition — staying out of primaries, for example — have not yielded the results they were sent to Austin to achieve. 

Asked about the assumption that incumbents should avoid primaries, Burton responded with a question: "How's that working out for us?"

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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