In a race pitting an East Texas incumbent against an upstart challenger endorsed by conservative activists, a pair of unlikely issues has dominated the Republican primary fight for House District 2: toll roads and a controversy at the University of Texas at Austin.
Bryan Slaton, a businessman and former Baptist minister, is hoping to unseat six-term incumbent state Rep. Dan Flynn of Canton, saying Flynn has stayed in office too long and has become less conservative over time.
Flynn, a rancher and businessman, says he’s proud of his legislative record and that his re-election bid comes after a legislative session that was “probably my best.”
Political observers are closely following the race — the latest example of a challenger from the right posing a credible threat to a long-term incumbent — because it could reshape the conservative makeup of the Legislature’s lower chamber. House District 2 lies east of Dallas and includes Sulphur Springs and Greenville.
Flynn, 72, says he’s won support from local leaders by helping pass conservative laws, such as a measure last year that funded a border surge to try to help prevent illegal immigration along the Texas-Mexico border, and a recent boost to highway funding for projects in the district.
Slaton, 38, says Flynn has fallen out of step with constituents on issues such as toll roads and the role of governor-appointed public university officials.
“He’s been there quite a long time, and the longer you stay there, the more likely your voting record is to change,” Slaton said of Flynn. “People have noticed that.”
Both candidates say highway funding is a main priority for district voters. Slaton touts his background of activism against a proposed toll road in the district that was defeated last year. He said Flynn wasn't responsive to input from constituents who tried to kill the project.
“I was part of the group that was fighting to shut that down,” Slaton said. “There were numerous people, including myself, asking for help from him, and he refused.”
“It’s an issue that he wants to take credit for that was a decision that was made at a level far above him,” Flynn said. “That’s part of what we did in the transportation bill.”
Flynn also mentioned the constitutional amendment voters approved last year, first authorized by the Legislature, which will bring new road funding to the district.
Additionally, Slaton has sought to challenge Flynn over the lawmaker’s role in probing Wallace Hall, a regent of the University of Texas System who was admonished by public officials over his lengthy personal investigations of the University of Texas at Austin administration.
Flynn served as co-chair of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, and Slaton says Flynn abused that role by presiding over a witch hunt targeting the university regent.
“It feels like [Hall] was bullied for just trying to talk about what was going on down at the University of Texas,” Slaton said. “This is the largest scandal in higher education history.”
Flynn characterized the committee’s admonition of Hall differently.
“We had a very thorough and fair hearing, and Mr. Hall refused to come and testify before the committee,” he said. “This is my take: That’s a pretty shallow issue, if that’s all he’s got to run against.”
Flynn said he has a lengthy record of opposing abortion and limiting government, noting that he has been endorsed by elected officials like Land Commissioner George P. Bush for being a “strong conservative.” He said he also enjoyed the support of most of the city mayors in the district.
Flynn said his opponent’s campaign was mostly supported by people outside the district, including “someone out in West Texas,” an apparent reference to Tim Dunn, the oilman and major donor in Texas’ right-wing circles.
But Flynn’s claims of community support have come under fire in the race.
Slaton, endorsed by far-right groups like Empower Texans and Tea Party 911, accused Flynn of lying in campaign materials about having the support of conservative leaders such as Cathie Adams of the Texas Eagle Forum.
In a recent mailer for Slaton, Adams wrote that she “never gave [Flynn] permission to use my endorsement on his campaign material for this election.”
“I supported him in the past because he used to vote more conservatively, until Dan chose to serve the Austin establishment, rather than his constituents," she wrote.
Flynn said he never claimed Adams had endorsed him in this race, but that his campaign had printed cards including an old complimentary quote from Adams. He said he withdrew the materials “at great expense” after Adams raised concerns.
“Cathie had been a friend of mine for a very long time,” Flynn said, adding: “It is very humbling to run for office and have incredible personal attacks put on you, and yet the people seem to understand.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.