One man says he's the most reliable steward of the party's finances. The other says he'll make it a more assertive voice for conservative values.
If the match-up sounds familiar, it is: After vying nearly a year ago to lead the Texas GOP, Tom Mechler and Jared Woodfill are again competing for the chairman's job. Except this time Mechler is the incumbent and Woodfill the challenger, making for a pitched battle over the reins of the party in an action-packed presidential election year.
Mechler, the party's former treasurer, is pulling no punches, seizing on Woodfill's alleged mismanagement of the Harris County GOP and push for a divisive "purity test."
"His slogan is he wants to take the party back," Mechler said of Woodfill. "But it looks like he really wants to take the party backwards to a place where it was not prosperous and was really financially struggling."
In Mechler's telling, a Woodfill chairmanship would divide Texas Republicans, imperiling the party's ability to hold on to its wide majorities in Austin and fend off well-funded efforts to turn Texas blue. "Nothing would be more helpful to the Democrats" than Woodfill as chairman, Mechler said.
Under Mechler, Woodfill counters the party has been "conspicuously silent" on issues important to the GOP base and too reluctant to get involved in battles under the pink dome. Whoever leads the Texas GOP, by Woodfill's definition, "needs to be a big, loud voice for conservatism" — even when it means going up against members of his own party.
“When a Republican is in the wrong, we need to call them out, just like we would do with a Democrat," Woodfill said. "We need a party that’s on the frontline and not on the sidelines."
Woodfill is not shying away from his 12-year tenure at the helm of the Harris County Republican Party, which ended in 2014 when Paul Simpson unseated him. Woodfill dismisses Mechler's criticism of his stewardship in Harris County — "There's not one thing he can point to," Woodfill says — and calls it ironic given that Mechler has faced his own questions about his ability to put the Texas GOP on sound financial footing. "We've got a party that appears to be on life support right now," Woodfill said.
The choice between Mechler and Woodfill will be put to delegates at the party's mid-May convention in Dallas. The winner will permanently replace Steve Munisteri, who stepped down in March to join U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's doomed presidential campaign.
Munisteri is widely credited for getting the party's finances in order after unseating an embattled Cathie Adams, now Woodfill's running mate, at the Texas GOP convention in 2010. On Tuesday, Munisteri officially threw his support behind Mechler, making sure to cite his former treasurer's "continuing efforts to the revived fiscal health of the Republican Party of Texas."
"Tom Mechler has demonstrated he is the leader that the Republican Party of Texas needs as we enter a critical election year," Munisteri said in a statement. "Under Tom's conservative leadership, the party is winning historic elections and is poised to dominate the Democrats in 2016."
On his side, Woodfill has the backing of conservative groups such as Texas Right to Life and the Texas Homeschool Coalition. He's traveling the state holding events branded with his slogan: "Take Back Our Party." His more recent endorsements include state Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood and David Barton, an influential figure in evangelical circles and the state party's former vice chairman.
Woodfill is banking on the support of people like Bonnie Lugo, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee who supported Mechler in his bid for chairman last year but has since grown disillusioned with his leadership. "Four chairmen I've served under, and it is very oppressive," Lugo said, accusing Mechler of operating behind closed doors more than his predecessor.
Lugo was among the SREC members whose support helped Mechler emerge victorious from a four-way race for the interim position in March. Mechler won after two rounds of secret ballot voting, meaning it is not publicly known how well Woodfill performed by comparison.
Since then, Woodfill served as the public face of the successful effort to overturn Houston's anti-discrimination ordinance, known as HERO. He cited the battle over the law, which drew the attention of national Democrats such as President Barack Obama, as one example of his ability to bring people together and fight for conservative values.
"When we defeat them 61 to 39 percent, I would put those numbers against anything Mechler has ever done," Woodfill said, referring to the margin by which voters rejected the ordinance in November.
Among the recent victories Mechler is campaigning on is Republican John Lujan's unexpected win over Democrat Tomas Uresti in a special election in January to replace state Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio. Mechler called the outcome a "great example of what happens with Republicans unite together and pull in the same direction."