Two Tea Party-backed members of the Texas House are fighting for an open seat in the Senate long held by Republican Sen. Kevin Eltife, whose tendency to become a swing vote on conservative legislation left some members of his own party restive.
State Reps. Bryan Hughes and David Simpson, who now represent House Districts 5 and 7 respectively, are running to replace Eltife in Senate District 1. James "Red" Brown, a former Army general, and Mike Lee, a retired Navy hovercraft pilot, round out the GOP field. The primary winner will have clear sailing in November because no Democrats have filed for the seat.
In June, Eltife announced he would not seek re-election to the seat he has held for more than two decades, confirming rumors that started swirling when Simpson launched a vague website counting down to his "next campaign." After Eltife's announcement, Simpson and Hughes both immediately announced their intentions to run. In December, Brown and Lee launched their own bids for the post, one of two open seats in the Senate.
While Eltife embraced his role as an "independent voice" and urged his successor to follow his lead, Smith County Republican Party Chairman Tim McCormick said some "activist members of the party" were ready for a shift in leadership.
"I think that a number of voters, including in many of the smaller counties, were not satisfied with Eltife and wanted a more conservative individual to represent them in the Senate," McCormick said. "If they are not more conservative on issues than Eltife — and that's not to say that Eltife wasn't effective — but if they're not more conservative, they won't get elected a second time."
During the 2015 session, Eltife went against the grain of the Republican Party by arguing against a major property tax cut, instead urging the Legislature to use the state's abundance of cash to pay off debt and address deferred maintenance issues. In 2013, Eltife took a similar stance, pushing other GOP lawmakers to accept a tax hike.
Simpson said he had already decided to run before Eltife's retirement. Other candidates in the race said they weren't planning to challenge the longtime legislator.
"I think Senator Eltife was one of the greatest senators who ever served the state of Texas," Brown said. "Filling his shoes is a huge hole and I, along with the other members of this district, truly wish that Sen. Eltife had made the choice to continue to serve because he is a great, great senator."
Simpson said he respects Eltife, who "passed a lot of my bills," but said he is "not as conservative and independent as I am."
Simpson and Hughes are touting their legislative records, pushing to appear as the more conservative candidate in the Northeast Texas district, which includes Tyler, Texarkana and Paris. The lawmakers have long been allies in the House, where Hughes endorsed Simpson in his bid against Rep. Joe Straus for speaker of the House in 2012. Hughes did not return calls for comment.
"My friend David Simpson, who you’ll hear from shortly, he really is a friend, good man in this race," said Hughes on Feb. 11 at a candidate forum hosted by the Southern Cruiser Riding Club. "We’re going to line up on a lot of the issues, but some things we’re going to differ on. I would ask you to look at our records as we talk to you and you check us out."
Skip Ogle, a Tyler resident who ran for the House District 6 seat in 2013 and lost to Rep. Matt Schaefer, said he thinks voters will be looking for a conservative candidate without a history in the Legislature.
"I compare it to the presidential race right now," he said. "Look at the numbers that Donald Trump has got and he is not a career politician. He's a businessman and a noted TV reality star, but more of an anti-career politician if nothing else ... When you're talking about the establishment, you're looking at two politicians that have been serving for a number of years, so that will be something that Rep. Hughes and Rep. Simpson will have to overcome."
Rice University Political Science Professor Mark Jones said voters may be tired of career politicians, but Simpson stands out to him as an anti-establishment candidate more than Brown, who has no legislative background.
"Red Brown is running more from the center, and David Simpson, while he is a current representative, is about as much of an outsider as you can be and be an elected official," Jones said. "I think for Brown, he is much more of a centrist conservative. He has more the rhetoric of being somebody who's going to go to Austin and be another Kevin Eltife and not somebody whose going to go and be a bomb thrower, and the Trump people want a bomb thrower."
Simpson, who described himself as "anti-establishment before it was cool," was often situated at the far right in the House, voting against finalized budgets and proposing measures like an "anti-groping" bill that would make it illegal for a law enforcement official conducing a security screening to touch the “anus, breast, buttocks, or sexual organ of the other person, including touching through clothing.”
Simpson also became a voice supporting the legalization of marijuana, something that may alienate him from conservative voters. “I don’t believe that when God made marijuana, he made a mistake that government needs to fix,” Simpson, who is devoutly religious, has argued.
"David Simpson was real well known in the Tyler area and was well respected by many many people, but a lot of people got really upset when he started having his bill on marijuana," McCormick said. "Some people started calling him Doper Dave. That’s just how it hit the people out here."
Hughes has raised significantly more money for his campaign than his competitors, pulling in $606,420, compared to $257,432 raised by Brown and $254,129 by Simpson, according to the latest campaign finance reports. Most of the support for Brown and Simpson came from individual contributions, while half of Hughes' funding came from Austin-based entities such as the Empower Texans PAC and the Texans for Education Reform PAC that bankroll far-right, Tea Party-favored candidates.
Lee, who did not generate any political contributions, said he believes politicians should be able to support themselves.
"I have endorsements, but I don’t talk about them because I don’t like endorsements," Lee said. "I think they’re a crutch. If they could stand on their own, they would. They don’t need someone else to endorse them."
Hughes has racked up a list of endorsements including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and former Gov. Rick Perry, while Simpson and Brown advertise lengthy lists of local supporters.
Jones said the race will likely result in a runoff, as is the tendency when candidates are competing for an open seat. Jones said Hughes appears to be the frontrunner, pointing to his campaign contributions and lengthy list of endorsements.
"Really, there are two races going on there," he said. "There's Bryan Hughes versus 50 percent and then there's Red Brown versus David Simpson. So the first race is, can Bryan Hughes win an absolute majority and avoid having to go to a runoff? And the second is, if you failed in that task, who will compete against him in May, Red Brown or David Simpson?"
Becca Aaronson contributed to this report.