A little over a month ago, President Donald Trump endorsed U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, for reelection, giving her the best possible vote of confidence she could ask for as she faces a primary challenger questioning her pro-Trump credentials.
The race is far from over, however.
On Thursday, the national conservative group Club for Growth endorsed her challenger, Chris Putnam, and unveiled plans for a seven-figure ad blitz, ensuring the primary will remain hotly contested even after Trump's intervention. It was a more notable endorsement than usual for the group, which has cooled its efforts to unseat incumbents in recent years while aligning with the president after spending big to beat him in the 2016 primary.
In Texas, the Club for Growth is coming off a 2018 cycle where all but one of its candidates prevailed as it spent millions on ads that made presidential loyalty a bright dividing line.
For now, though, the group appears to be more narrowly focusing on Granger, the top Republican on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. In a statement announcing the Putnam endorsement, the Club for Growth's president, David McIntosh, said the incumbent "has recklessly voted for out-of-control deficit spending, backroom bloated budget deals, and debt limit increases." McIntosh also singled out Granger's work to get federal dollars for Panther Island, a controversial flood control project on the Trinity River in Fort Worth that Granger's son previously oversaw.
Granger's campaign responded to the endorsement with a reminder of her Trump endorsement — and a swipe at Putnam over his own fiscal record as a Colleyville City Council member.
"Kay is proud to be endorsed by President Trump and she’s proud of her record of delivering conservative results for her district," Granger spokesman Keats Norfleet said in a statement. "It’s ironic that they would choose to support a candidate that voted to raise property taxes and grow the budget while serving on his local city council."
After backing Putnam, the Club for Growth wasted little time kicking off an aggressive ad campaign against Granger. The group launched a digital ad saying Granger has a "spending problem" and has "gone Washington," while an allied super PAC, Protect Freedom PAC, unveiled a TV spot pillorying her for failing to "defend the unborn."
Mainly at issue is a 2007 MSNBC interview in which Granger described herself as a "pro-choice Republican." Over the years, however, she has given more mixed signals on where she stands on abortion, and earlier this month, she was among over 200 congressional Republicans who asked the Supreme Court to consider reversing Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that made abortion legal nationwide.
In any case, Granger's supporters have appeared well-prepared for the line of attack. Trump's endorsement of her proclaimed she is "100% pro-life," while her campaign has been rolling out endorsements from state and national anti-abortion groups, including National Right to Life on Thursday morning. Putnam has the backing of the group's state affiliate, Texas Right to Life.
Granger can also count on the support of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the chief super PAC aligned with House Republican leadership. The group polled the primary in mid-December and found Granger had a massive lead.
After a sleepy start to her reelection campaign, Granger appears to be taking it more seriously. She brought on a seasoned consultant, Norfleet, and has started cranking out endorsements in recent weeks and capitalizing on Trump's support, making it the subject of her debut TV ad. Her campaign has also stopped entirely ignoring Putnam, starting with a mid-December statement on the presidential endorsement that said there is "simply too much at stake to send an unproven, inexperienced representative to fight for our values in Washington."
Putnam's campaign has also been ramping up in recent weeks. After Trump backed Granger, Putnam got the endorsements of Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn as well as hard-right groups such as Empower Texans. Putnam has also gone on TV with two spots attacking Granger, linking her to Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
That is on top of Putnam's persistent charges that Granger has not been supportive enough of Trump. He points to her call for Trump to drop out of the presidential race in 2016 after the surfacing of the "Access Hollywood" tape, as well as her initial statement advocating for "due process" in the Trump impeachment process — not forceful enough of a defense in Putnam's eyes.
Putnam has scoffed at Granger's recent embrace of Trump as an election-year about-face.
The next turn in the primary will come Jan. 31, the deadline by which Granger and Putnam have to disclose their campaign finances from the last three months. Putnam made clear he would be a viable candidate after the third quarter, thanks in part to his personal wealth. He loaned himself $250,000 while collecting $206,000 in contributions. Granger got $283,000 in donations over the same period and ended it with $563,000 cash on hand to Putnam's $448,000.