That was in 2014, when the Tea Party-backed Rinaldi knocked Ratliff from the House District 115 post he’d held for just one term. Now Ratliff is fighting to reclaim the seat, and both candidates hope increased turnout fueled by a competitive presidential race will propel them to victory in the March 1 GOP primary.
Ratliff, a Coppell school board member and civil engineer, is waging a campaign aimed at voters dissatisfied with Rinaldi’s brand of uncompromising conservatism.
“People want effective representation, somebody who will go to Austin and actually get something done,” said Ratliff, who announced he would challenge Rinaldi shortly after the close of the 2015 legislative session. “They realize there is a stark contrast between my record of accomplishing conservative results, and my opponent’s record of just voting no.”
During his first legislative session, Rinaldi, an Irving lawyer, joined a faction of lawmakers who frequently challenged House Republican leadership from the right. He contends the rematch presents district voters a clear-cut choice — one they’ve made before.
“Bennett Ratliff is an establishment moderate, and I’m a movement conservative,” he said. “The voters replaced Ratliff last time because he voted with Democrats more than Republicans.”
The March primary will mark the third time the two Republicans have competed. Rinaldi also campaigned for the seat in 2012 but failed to make it to a runoff that Ratliff ultimately won.
The theme of the race hasn't changed much since then, with Ratliff pushing for support from what he calls “Main Street Republicans” and Rinaldi presenting himself as the only true champion for conservative values. But now, each candidate has a legislative record.
Ratliff has hit Rinaldi for joining a handful of conservatives on several controversial House votes, including voting against extending the statue of limitation in rape cases and banning electronic cigarettes on public school campuses. He has also bashed a bill Rinaldi sponsored that would have provided criminal suspects with a defense to resisting arrest.
“People just don’t understand his unwillingness to support our local police forces,” said Ratliff.
Rinaldi, who has attempted to paint Ratliff as a Democrat in disguise, said voters aren’t swayed by his opponent’s attacks on his record.
“I think people see them for what they are — there are just a twisting of what the bill is actually about,” he said. “They realize what they are hearing is half-truths.”
So far in this round, both candidates have landed solid financial backing. Rinaldi has raised about $315,000 since June and has the edge over Ratliff, who has about $177,000 in contributions over the same period.
That lead is largely due to infusions of cash from Rinaldi’s biggest donors. Empower Texans, a conservative advocacy group that backs Tea Party candidates, has invested $125,000 in his campaign — with its founder, Midland oilman Tim Dunn, personally pitching in another $5,000. Texans For Education Reform, which focuses on policies that promote charter schools and virtual education, has chipped in $50,000. His funds also include $25,000 from fracking billionaire and Republican megadonor Farris Wilks.
Ratliff’s war chest contains $25,000 from the Texas Association of Realtors and $10,000 from San Antonio grocery mogul Charles Butt but is primarily filled with more modest contributions. Those include sums from a number of current and former Republican legislators: Patricia Harless of Spring, Byron Cook of Corsicana, Jim Pitts of Waxahachie, John Carona of Dallas, John Otto of Dayton, Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen, and Vicki Truitt of Southlake.
Though the winner of the primary will face Democrat Dorotha Ocker in November, the March contest will almost certainly decide who represents the heavily Republican district.