The Republican primary for House District 55 in Central Texas centers on two hot-button conservative issues — abortion and illegal immigration — but with the candidates claiming similar hardline opposition to both, the race has become something of a résumé contest.
One-term incumbent state Rep. Molly White, a Tea Party favorite from Belton, and challenger Hugh Shine, a former state representative from Temple, are clamoring to tell voters about the personal experiences they say most qualify them to carry the conservative standard.
For White, it’s a tale of anti-abortion activism. For Shine, it’s his history of National Guard service along the Texas-Mexico border. Both stories were on full display in the final weeks before early voting begins for the March 1 primaries.
In a recent mailer to constituents, White detailed in stark words her personal history of becoming an anti-abortion activist after terminating two pregnancies in her 20s.
“Before I was born again by His grace, I sacrificed two children at the altar of a death cult called the abortion industry,” White wrote in the mailer.
She has said those abortions caused her lasting physical and emotional suffering, including cervical damage and drug and alcohol abuse, which convinced her the procedure is unsafe and shouldn’t be legal.
“Today, I am one of the most vocal pro-life advocates in Texas, because I know more than most people ever will, that ALL life is precious,” White wrote in the mailer, with text printed above an endorsement from anti-abortion advocacy group Texas Right to Life.
Shine, on the other hand, carries the endorsement of rival anti-abortion group Texas Alliance for Life. Joe Pojman, the group’s executive director, said he endorsed Shine because of his anti-abortion record as a lawmaker in the 1980s, including his work on legislation that banned “late-term” abortions.
“Hugh Shine will be a far more effective legislator for Texas as a whole and for House District 55,” Pojman said.
White, he said, “is a very good activist in certain venues, but being a legislator is different."
White made national headlines last year when she asked Muslim visitors to her Capitol office to declare allegiance to the United States and renounce Islamic terrorist groups. Shine has criticized those comments, saying: "Once you become the representative, you represent everybody, and everyone should have the opportunity to have access their representative."
In the 2015 legislative session, Texas Alliance for Life opposed a bill authored by White that was intended to stop “coerced” abortions. Pojman said the goal of White’s legislation was admirable but that the bill, as written, would have had the unintended consequence of publicly identifying women who had been sold into sex slavery, putting their lives in danger from human traffickers. Texas Right to Life supported the bill, which died in committee.
Shine, meanwhile, said voters are primarily focused on curbing illegal immigration. In a phone interview, he touted his experience in the National Guard as evidence that he knows how to secure the Texas-Mexico border and prevent heroin and methamphetamine trafficking, issues he said the district had struggled with.
“I’ve flown numerous times from El Paso to Brownsville, flying those drug interdiction missions with law enforcement,” he said. “I think the biggest difference [between the candidates] is the fact that I have been there.”
A spokesman for White declined to make her available for an interview, instead directing questions to Luke Macias, a campaign consultant.
Macias said White had a strong track record of combating illegal immigration, including her support for an $800 million border surge that lawmakers approved last year, which included hiring 250 state troopers stationed along the Texas-Mexico border.
“Molly White delivered on border security, but the particular issue in this race is that Molly White is one of the most conservative state representatives in Texas, and that’s what her community wants,” he said.
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said White, as the incumbent, likely holds the advantage in the race, but that the 2016 Republican primary is a “difficult cycle to predict, given the presence of Donald Trump and the particular presence of movement conservative [U.S. Sen.] Ted Cruz on the ballot.”
“Generally speaking, the greater the turnout, the greater the advantage of candidates that have the most money because they have the ability to reach low-information voters,” he said.
This week, Shine reported just more than $113,000 cash on hand, including a $30,000 loan. White finished the fundraising period with almost $95,000 cash on hand.
But White took the late fundraising advantage, taking in about $45,000 in the first three weeks of January — bolstered by a $25,000 donation from archconservative group Empower Texans. Shine raised just $5,225 over the same period.