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Ask Texas Republicans running for office about President Donald Trump, and some will praise the $1.5 trillion tax cut he signed. Others will applaud his judicial appointments or his rhetoric on immigration. And some will avoid talking about him at all.
But many have raised a similar concern about the commander-in-chief: his itchy Twitter fingers.
“The only thing I would like to do is put his cellphone in time out,” said Linda Timmerman, one of three Republicans vying for the state House seat being vacated by Corsicana Republican Byron Cook.
The polarizing president has become the elephant in the room of Texas Republican politics. In some Republican primaries, he's impossible to avoid, such as the land commissioner's race, where Donald Trump Jr. has endorsed incumbent George P. Bush. In other races, candidates have no interest in saying anything about the leader of their party.
Since January, The Texas Tribune has asked more than 40 Texas Republicans on the GOP primary ballot about their view of Trump’s first year in office. Of those who answered questions about Trump, what they liked about him varied widely. But when it came to their biggest hang-up with him, they were remarkably united. Nearly half of the Republican officeholders and candidates expressed frustration with how the president has repeatedly affected his party's agenda by his use of Twitter.
“I definitely don’t like what most people don’t like, which is the tweeting," said Fernando Padron, a Republican running for a San Antonio-based seat in the Texas House currently held by Democrat Diana Arévalo.
State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, noted that he hears the same gripe from his constituents.
“When I go to a coffee shop in House District 2 and I talk to people, there's only one complaint: ‘Oh, he shouldn't tweet so much!’” Flynn said.
The Republicans interviewed offered few other critiques of the Trump administration. None expressed concern about his relationship with Russia or allegations that Trump’s businesses are profiting off of his presidency.
Several candidates praised Trump's nomination of Neil Gorsuch to replace Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court. Others credited Trump for how well the economy has performed.
“He has done more to support the growth of American energy production in the last year than most presidents in modern history,” said Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick.
Yet some candidates weren't willing to talk about the current president at all.
"I'm not getting into that," said state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, when asked to assess Trump's presidency Thursday. She had just completed an onstage event with the Tribune in which she declined to say whether she even voted for Trump in 2016. Democrat Hillary Clinton won Davis' district by 15 percentage points, and Davis is in an expensive primary fight against Susanna Dokupil, whom Gov. Greg Abbott has endorsed.
Asked about Trump on Thursday, Dokupil responded in an email, "Donald Trump has done a fantastic job of appointing constitutional conservatives to the bench, and that legacy will extend well after his administration. Also, I support the Trump Administration’s focus on securing our borders and ending sanctuary cities."
State Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, also declined to talk about Trump, who beat Hillary Clinton in his Texas House district in 2016 by less than 200 votes.
“I’ve got my own race to run,” Workman said. “I’m not going to get into talking about President Trump.”
Workman is facing two challengers in the Republican primary: Jay Wiley and Patty Vredevelt. The winner will face one of five Democrats who are also running for the seat.
“I’m fully on board with lessening the footprint of federal government, lessening regulations, borders and taxes," Wiley said of the Trump administration. "I support all of those things."
“There’s been nothing I’ve disliked,” he added.
Vredevelt was more cautious when asked about Trump.
“I think that he is doing some good things,” she said. “I have issues with his character. I would like to just leave it at that.”
A complicated history
Texas Republicans have had an awkward relationship with Trump ever since he was a candidate for president in 2016. By the state’s Republican primary that year, more than 50 state officeholders had endorsed their fellow Texan, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, for president. None had endorsed Trump. Many came around only after Cruz dropped out of the race.
Trump ultimately bested Clinton in Texas by 9 points, the smallest margin of victory for a Republican presidential candidate in the state in 20 years.
A Gallup survey released last month found Trump’s approval rating among Texans was just 39 percent. Yet Trump remains popular among a segment of the Republican base. That’s reflected in how a handful of candidates are strongly embracing him in their 2018 bids.
Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who was on Trump's shortlist to be U.S. agriculture secretary, frequently mentions his connections to the Trump campaign while running for re-election. Miller did not respond to the Tribune's request to assess Trump's term thus far. One of his primary opponents, Trey Blocker, a longtime Austin lobbyist and conservative podcast host, said he liked Trump's nomination of Gorsuch and his tax cut bill.
As for dislikes, Blocker mentioned only one: "The border is still not secure."
In the 18-way Republican primary for the congressional seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, several candidates have touted ties to Trump or his campaign. Chip Roy, a former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, has publicized the endorsement of David Bossie, who served as Trump’s deputy campaign manager.
Another candidate, Bexar County Republican Party Chairman Robert Stovall, has gone perhaps the furthest to frame himself as the most Trump-friendly candidate in the crowded race, touting the support of Brad Parscale, the digital director of Trump’s campaign, and releasing a campaign ad in which he's wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat while standing knee-deep in a swamp.
“I’m running for Congress to help President Trump get rid of the establishment politicians who have failed to support his agenda,” says Stovall in the ad.
In that same race, communications consultant Jenifer Sarver has taken the opposite approach, making her willingness to stand up to Trump central to her campaign pitch.
"As a woman, I couldn't vote for candidate Trump," Sarver said on NBC's Meet the Press Daily. "But what I've been telling people is this: He is the president, he is the leader of our party, and I'm proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him when he's governing with conservative principles. But I reserve the right to call out incivility when I see it."
Bush v. Patterson
But Trump may prove to be the biggest factor in the Republican primary for land commissioner, where incumbent George P. Bush is facing three primary challengers including Jerry Patterson, who held the position before Bush.
Bush initially backed his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for president in 2016 but later urged Republicans to support Trump once he became the GOP’s nominee and his since been an outspoken fan.
“I am enacting conservative reforms and working alongside the Trump agenda—thank you @POTUS,” Bush tweeted last month on the night of Trump’s State of the Union address.
Patterson himself was once one of the most outspoken Trump critics in Texas. Ahead of the 2016 primaries, Patterson said one of the reasons he opted not to run for a spot on the state’s Railroad Commission that year was a discomfort with being on the same ballot as Trump.
“Telling Trump supporters that they should vote for Jerry Patterson while simultaneously opining that anybody who votes for Trump is an idiot is not a good formula for success,” Patterson said at the time.
The Trump family has apparently not forgotten those swipes. This month, Donald Trump Jr. endorsed Bush for re-election, noting in a tweet that Bush campaigned for his father in 2016 while Patterson “attacked Trump and urged him [to] quit the race.”
Yet Patterson told the Tribune he is impressed with many of Trump’s accomplishments as president, particularly his judicial appointments and his rolling back Obama-era regulations.
“I think he is doing good things that might otherwise not be done if somebody else was president,” Patterson said. “I just wish he would get off the Twitter and recognize that who the hell cares what The New York Times says.”
Claire Allbright, Kiah Collier, Rishika Dugyala, Marissa Evans, Shannon Najmabadi, Emma Platoff and Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.
Disclosure: The General Land Office, Trey Blocker, Jerry Patterson and Jenifer Sarver have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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