High-ranking state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, is a veteran of mud-slinging primary campaigns. For three straight elections last decade, he tussled with challengers who claimed he wasn’t conservative enough, only to defeat them by relatively wide margins.
To keep his seat in 2016, he’ll have to win against another primary opponent questioning his conservative credentials. But this year's race has a new twist. Geren has known his challenger, Bo French, most of French’s life.
“His grandparents lived across the street from my parents,” said Geren, 66. “I used to swim in their pool.”
That hasn’t stopped the two candidates from quarreling. The tone for the race was set before French even announced his candidacy. When French, 46, met with Geren and told him his plans, Geren’s response was simple.
“I just told him I was going to kick his ass,” Geren said.
The race to represent House District 99 has garnered attention beyond the district’s boundaries in northwest Fort Worth and its suburbs. As chairman of the House Administration Committee, Geren is one of the most powerful members of the Texas House and a longtime ally of Speaker Joe Straus. That has made him a major target of a segment of conservative activists, who complain that House leadership is too moderate.
French will try to rally those conservatives. During the race, he has accused Geren of being one of the most liberal Republicans in the House.
“It’s not personal, but when I looked at his record and how long he served, it was clear our district needed a change,” French said.
The winner of the primary will almost certainly win the seat in the GOP-dominated district. No Democratic challenger will be on the ballot in November.
French is a political newcomer who was previously best known as a former business partner of famous Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. The two helped run Craft International, a law enforcement training company. After Kyle died in 2013, his widow sued French and another partner, arguing that they pushed her out of the company.
French and his partner denied the charge. The suit was later dropped, and French says “we have reached an agreement on the direction of the company.”
During his campaign, French has portrayed himself as a family man deeply concerned about the state of Texas government. In the last few months, he has built up a substantial campaign war chest and online following. He raised more than $150,000 in the second half of 2015, and he has spent hours knocking on doors in the district. As of Jan. 21, he had almost $180,000 cash on hand, according to campaign finance reports.
But Geren has proven that he is a difficult leader to topple. As the proprietor of a popular Fort Worth barbecue restaurant, he has deep ties to the district. And he raised more than $400,000 in the last half of 2015 and had almost $1 million in his campaign account at the start of 2016. After spending money on this race, that balance dwindled to just under $700,000 by the end of last month.
He said he is used to being in the crosshairs of interest groups and survives because of his conservative record. Last year, Geren said, the state cut taxes and substantially beefed up border security. At the same time, it created new funding streams for transportation and increased money devoted to education, he said.
“My campaign has been endorsed by two of the largest pro-life groups in the state and by every major business group,” he said. “I have got the support and the history of serving the district. Our campaign will be successful.”
French, meanwhile, has highlighted immigration issues in his attacks against Geren.
In a campaign mailer, French said he will fight to “abolish sanctuary cities,” “secure the border” and “stop government handouts to illegals.” The implication was that Geren and other House leadership haven’t done that. A similar flyer was reportedly sent to San Antonio voters by the campaign of Sheila Bean, who is challenging Straus in the Republican primary.
Geren disputes that he is soft on illegal immigration, noting that he voted for a bill in 2011 that sought to stop municipalities or other local governments from adopting policies that forbid local peace officers from enforcing federal immigration laws. The bill, which became known as the “sanctuary cities bill,” died in the Senate.
Instead of focusing on problems that can’t be blamed on Geren, voters should be worried about French’s lack of experience, Geren said.
“I am running on my record, and my opponent doesn’t have a record,” Geren said. “In fact, he has only voted in one Republican primary this century.”
French listed “ending taxpayer subsidies to illegal immigrants” and boosting border security as two of his top three priorities. (The third was “defending our constitutional rights.”) He didn’t dispute Geren’s characterization of his voting record, but he said he has been focusing on “starting businesses, a family, having four children in five years and serving in my church and community.”
Still, French said he doesn’t think voters will worry about whether “I voted in the local library board election.” They want to know about the work he will do once elected, he said.
“I have four young children, and I am concerned what future their generation will inherit if I don’t stand up and make the tough, principled decisions I need to strengthen Texas,” he said.