Two years after Gary VanDeaver defeated George Lavender in a race to represent part of Northeast Texas in the state House of Representatives, the two will face each other once more on the Republican primary ballot March 1.
VanDeaver, a former teacher and school administrator from New Boston, won the House District 1 seat in 2014, edging out four-year member Lavender. Each candidate says he is the most conservative choice in this year's race, and both say they tackled district-specific issues in the Legislature.
VanDeaver points to legislative accomplishments such as securing money in the state budget for new buildings and an expanded nursing program at Texas A&M-Texarkana, while Lavender highlights a bill he wrote to restructure the Riverbend Water Resources District, which governs water resources in Bowie and Red River counties.
Lavender, a small-businessman from Bowie County, said he wants to return to the House because VanDeaver has a weak record on water and border security.
"His record is a tough record to get past and he has certainly made some good votes, but he’s made several really bad votes," said Lavender. "I'm much more conservative than him, and my district is pretty conservative. I think the No. 1 choice for president is Ted Cruz, so that kind of tells you where we are."
VanDeaver stands by his record representing the House district, which includes Texarkana and Paris.
"I feel really good about my voting record, I feel really good about the way I've represented the district," VanDeaver said. "I feel confident, but I also know that I'm running against a former member and certainly can't take anything for granted."
Lavender was first elected to represent the Northeast Texas district in 2010, unseating Stephen Frost, a Democrat. He served two legislative sessions before losing his seat in the 2014 Republican Primary, where VanDeaver won with 54.34 percent of the vote.
"I never even mentioned him last election because I didn't really see the point in it," Lavender said of his campaign strategy in 2014. "I just talked about what I had done for the district and thought that would be fine, but in the end it wasn't."
VanDeaver recalled the election differently, pointing to what he said was voters' dissatisfaction with Lavender.
"My opponent did not really have a great record as far as getting things done, so I ran on a bit of frustration," he said. "I think that resonated with the citizens of the district."
This time around, both candidates suspect primary voters will be looking to see which candidate falls further to the right based on their work in the Legislature and their stances on key issues.
"I think the big issue that I’m hearing from a lot of my constituents as I knock on doors is border security and taking care of illegal immigration. That is just huge on everybody’s mind," VanDeaver said. "I think people are really focused on the presidential primary and they’re watching the debates and they're hearing the sound bites, so it’s on their minds and I think that transfers to our race."
Chris Dux, the Lamar County GOP chairman, said voters in the district were frustrated by VanDeaver's vote in 2015 to postpone a measure that would have diverted money from a state center that addresses disproportionality in health and human services toward purchasing seven aircraft to be used at the border. The House voted 82-62 to postpone consideration of the measure.
Texarkana Mayor Bob Bruggeman, who has not endorsed in the race, said VanDeaver has "done a lot for this area" in higher education and public education, while Lavender is "very conscious of the importance of water rights in this area."
Vernon Eastepp, the Red River County GOP chairman, said water is a potentially divisive issue within the district — particularly the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir. The reservoir would secure water supplies for the Dallas Fort-Worth region, but some land in northern counties would have to be flooded. The reservoir likely will not be built for several decades.
Lavender said his opponent has been trying to shirk discussions on water policy.
"The water issue is a big issue here," Lavender said. "He was able to duck that last time, but he can’t do that this time, even though he’s still trying. "
Lavender's website says VanDeaver has failed to "take a stand AGAINST the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir" or promote legislation intended to strengthen property rights and protect water in East Texas. "There is a clear difference between the two candidates on water," it says.
"He is committed to making water the issue in this race, but unfortunately for him, we're really not that far apart on where we stand on water," said VanDeaver, whose campaign site makes no mention of water. "I think [the Marvin Nichols Reservoir] has been pushed to the back burner ... This gives us the opportunity to look at better conservation practices, new innovations like desalination. Who knows, in 40 years, reservoirs might be a thing of the past anyway."
VanDeaver said voters are focusing less on water and more on higher education, as House District 1 is home to Texas A&M-Texarkana and two community colleges.
“I was able to do a good bit of work with the higher ed institutes and have a very good working relationship with the presidents of those universities and colleges,” VanDeaver said. “I think certainly my educational background and my experience does set us apart in that area.”
The most recent campaign finance reports available show that VanDeaver has more cash on hand than Lavender. The incumbent has $68,489 after spending $37,376 on his campaign, while Lavender has $21,207 after spending $37,625.
In addition to water, Eastepp said voters in the conservative district are concerned about both candidates' allegiance to House Speaker Joe Straus.
"I wasn't really a fan of George Lavender because the first thing he did was go to Austin and joined with Joe Straus' forces," Eastepp said. "But VanDeaver went down there, after we told him we were very much against him supporting Joe Straus, he signed a letter of support for him."
VanDeaver said he continues to support Straus, but Lavender said he is less certain.
"I think for anybody to say they're going to support somebody right now is pretty premature," Lavender said.
No Democrat is running for House District 1. Early voting started Tuesday and continues through Feb. 26.