Off to the Races

GOP primary season is almost upon us. Duck.

A man waves a flag in front of the Texas State Capitol during the 2015 inauguration.
Kelsey Jukam
A man waves a flag in front of the Texas State Capitol during the 2015 inauguration.

Rest easy, politics junkies and policy-minded sadomasochists—the carnival is beginning anew. The brief lull that follows the end of the legislative session is wrapping up. Texas politicians are now free to raise money after a six-month prohibition coinciding with the session, and many of the key figures in the more interesting primary races are snapping into place. For much of the next year, Texans with a high tolerance for bullshit will have the opportunity to follow along with the finest still-legal bloodsport in the state: Republican legislative primaries.

There will be a lot of other elections happening, of course. The GOP presidential primary in March has the potential to be relatively exciting. It’s earlier in the primary calendar next year than it was in 2012, and the field of power-craving loons currently assembled contains no less than five Texas-connected candidates—Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum—who have an incentive to stay in the race until after the state’s say-so.

But next year’s other events are likely to be considerably less exciting. Texas won’t be competitive in the presidential general election. Democrats stand to pick up a few state House seats—and maybe a congressional seat or two—but that won’t change things much. There will only be one sleepy statewide race: for a seat on the state’s Railroad Commission.

Of all the 2016 contests, the GOP legislative primaries have the most consequence for Texans. If you understand the Legislature as a battle between moderate Republicans and the right—a simplification, but good enough for our purposes—the GOP primaries are the filter through which one side or the other gains strength and foot soldiers.

They have huge consequences for the state; and historically, almost no one votes in them. Fewer than 1 in 35 Texans cast a vote in the 2014 runoff when Dan Patrick turned Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst into an occasional op-ed writer—and down-ballot races were decided by tiny margins. When moderate-ish GOP incumbent Bob Deuell lost his seat to tea partier Bob Hall, whose primary occupation in office has been protecting the state from electromagnetic pulse weapons, the race was decided by just 300 votes.

This go-round, like in 2014, the headlining bouts will be between those state representatives allied with House Speaker Joe Straus and those allied with Midland oilman Tim Dunn and the organizing groups he and his friends help fund. Straus is no commie, but the House remains the most consequential block on right-wing legislative efforts, and his enemies—a faction now led in part by Patrick—have struggled to unseat him for years.

Just three of the 11 Republicans who organized the coup that dethroned former House Speaker Tom Craddick in 2009 could be in office after next November—Straus himself, state Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) and state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth). Cook and Geren stimulate the ire of right-wingers almost as much as Straus, but barring unexpected developments both men, facing weak opponents, would seem to be favorites in their races. And Straus has recruited new allies to replace old ones over the year. Having already announced he’s seeking another term as speaker, he’s probably a lock to retain it—unless, you know, the American Phoenix Foundation has footage of him at a strip club or a vegan restaurant.

Still, the replacement of old hands with new ones has a consequential effect on how the body runs. Several moderate dealmakers probably bear some of the responsibility for the weak session we just had. This time, we’re losing a few more Republican statesmen. State Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) is retiring. He was one of the few GOPers to openly criticize the Legislature’s fiscal irresponsibility this session, and he helped prevent some really bad bills from coming to a vote, the effort to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students among them.

State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) is leaving too, along with other seniors such as state Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), a top Straus lieutenant. Aycock is a GOPer who genuinely cares about public education. As chairman of the House committee that oversees it he tried to do right by the system, though his efforts sometimes dead-ended. Eltife and Aycock represent, in some ways, the best instincts of the Senate and House. In many ways, it has not been a great decade for Texas state government. As long as the state’s political culture is in thrall to the Republican primary system, Texans need lawmakers like them to mitigate possible damage.

Now they’ll be gone. What kind of people will replace them? Here’s six GOP races to watch to take the temperature of the state’s political climate.

Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake)
Patrick Michels
Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) on the House floor.

The weirdest race shaping up—and perhaps the most entertaining, if you enjoy carnival barking—is a tea party attempt to can state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake), who tea partiers installed in office just three years ago. Gio, as he’s known, has gone soft, you see. Last year, he was much like the rest of the tea party caucus: He handed out chocolate coins on the floor to promote his efforts to bring Texas gold home from the Federal Reserve. (That passed this year, oddly enough.) But just before this year’s session, he told a disbelieving and furious crowd in Tarrant County that he’d be voting for Straus for speaker over hapless tea party favorite Scott Turner.

Now the same people who helped get him elected are out to cut his jugular and wring him dry like a wet rag, thanks to Very Serious Disagreements About Policy. In May, Northeast Tarrant Tea Party leader Julie McCarty discovered she’d been banned from commenting on his Facebook page. He’d gone full Judas. Upon such bans is state history made: In an emotional post to her followers, she announced the gloves were coming off. A primary was coming. Capriglione characterized his critics as “fringe” and a “small minority” to The Dallas Morning News.

Tim Dunn’s house organ, a blog called AgendaWise, suggested McCarty primary him herself. She seemed delighted by the suggestion but has elsewhere hinted another challenger is forthcoming. Now, some of the best organized tea party groups in the state seem poised to spend resources this election cycle further making an enemy out of someone with whom they still agree on most policy particulars. It’s primaries all the way down, man.

Those two top Straus lieutenants, Cook and Geren, each have primary challengers. Could the challengers win? Sure, I guess. But each challenger leaves something to be desired. Geren will face Bo French. French, his site announces, is a “life-long Christian” and “the next generation of conservative leadership,” and he has the smile, hair, and blonde family to prove it. He also has a history of terrible acrimony with Taya Kyle, the widow of Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame. If you want to run in a GOP primary in North Texas, one thing you assuredly do not want to be is the dread and mortal enemy of Kyle’s widow, a woman who has become something akin to the Virgin Mother of DFW. It is pretty mystifying.

Rep. Byron Cook
State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)

Cook faces Thomas McNutt, a member of the McNutt family that owns Collin Street Bakery, “world renowned for its fruitcakes.” Thomas seems like a nice guy, but the McNutt family and its patriarch, Bill, have a long and sordid history of creepy behavior toward women, substance abuse, legal problems and other demons, written up extensively in D Magazine and other publications.

Say what you will about the anti-Straus coalition, but their candidate recruitment schemes could use some work.

There will also be a few primary challenges in the other direction. Tea party stalwart state Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving) will face another race with former state Rep. Bennett Ratliff, who lost the GOP primary to Rinaldi in 2014 by just 94 votes. With greater turnout in a presidential year possibly favoring more moderate Republicans, Rinaldi will be a high-profile target.

And in the Senate—pretty right-wing already, of course—two races could push it further right. Eltife’s retirement has sparked a flurry of interest from prospective candidates, but the two most prominent are probably state Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), dutiful Christian conservative, and state Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview). Both are more conservative than Eltife in several ways, though Simpson is more of an iconoclast-libertarian (and a proponent of legal pot).

Also retiring is state Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), who long ago ossified into a truculent, paid-for defender of industry with few other convictions besides humiliating freshmen. He’s not much of a loss, to be honest. If state Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene) decides to run, and wins, it may even be a step forward for the Senate—but it’s a race to watch. This is, after all, a district that overlaps with that of state representative and Muslim-whisperer Molly White, who came from obscurity to triumph in her race. She almost certainly won’t run, but another like-minded citizen-activist might.

There will also be a number of primary challenges for Texas congressmen, those filthy RINOs. Blake Farenthold and Lamar Smith face challengers. Up in the Metroplex, there’s been some talk that freshmen state senators Don Huffines and Bob Hall could challenge Pete Sessions and Jeb Hensarling, respectively—they could do that and keep their senate seats—but both have so far demurred. A Hall staffer emailed on Monday to say that he had “no interest” in Hensarling’s seat, and that he was “working hard to make a difference here on the state level.”

Last year’s lege primaries brought with them assault charges, a knife fight, revelations of alleged wife-beating, an ocean of mendacious lies, racial and religious tension and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This year, it will all be amplified by a pretty insane presidential contest. Good luck, everyone!

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 11:21 am CST