Here’s a hypothetical on a lot of people’s minds during election season: Exactly how fringe, how whacked-out, how seemingly unbalanced does a Republican candidate in Texas have to be to risk losing a GOP-leaning district to a presentable, modest Democrat? A lot of Dems, aghast at how far right the state GOP has moved, go into their campaigns thinking they’re going to come out on the fortunate side of that divide. But they’re usually disappointed.
But after Nov. 4, there’s a small chance that we might be able to call that fulcrum the “Tinderholt point.” Up in Arlington’s House District 94, a conservative activist named Tony Tinderholt is helping us put the proposition to the test once again. The district is currently represented by Diane Patrick, a moderate-ish GOPer who earned the ire of conservative purity groups like Empower Texans before losing her primary to Tinderholt, a virtually unknown conservative activist.
His Democratic opponent in the general election is a fellow named Cole Ballweg, a friendly guy who exemplifies the kind of moderate Democrat who runs in Texas suburbs these days. He emphasizes his history as a small business owner, preaches moderation on guns, health care, abortion, and other issues, and wants to help make “smart investments” in Texas’ future.
House District 94 is pretty conservative—Diane Patrick was mostly unopposed through her four-term tenure, and in 2012 Barack Obama won only 38 percent of the district’s votes—so normally this would be pretty easy. The guy with the ‘R’ next to his name wins, and it barely matters what the Democrat says. Except: Tinderholt might be the weirdest GOP state House candidate this cycle. He’s one of the most off-the-rails politicians you’ll find in the country right now. He’s the closest Texas voters are going to get to achieving their long-held dream of electing a gun.
In September, a video of Tinderholt addressing a 9/12 group in the Metroplex emerged. It featured a lengthy, hallucinogenic screed from Tinderholt about this summer’s border crisis, in which Tinderholt, seeming to channel Travis Bickle, wandered in and out of lucidity as he prophesied that “people were going to die” on the border and that’s “the only thing that’s going to stop the invasion of our country.” He called for sending American troops into Mexico to stop border-crossers.
He told the crowd: “Our border will be secure when we arm it and stop the people from coming across.” The whole speech, including a disturbing section in which Tinderholt mentions the “disgusting” and “gross” things the “cute children” coming across the border are going to be forced to do, lasts some 20 minutes, and it never really gets any better.
It was the first of many pieces of Tinderholt-related weirdness to come down the pipeline. Recently, Ballweg’s campaign released more footage of the GOP candidate addressing members of Open Carry Tarrant County, the fringe gun group that has been terrifying random groups of people around Fort Worth and has been repudiated by both its ostensible parent group, Open Carry Texas, and the NRA.
Before an Open Carry Tarrant County demonstration, Tinderholt speaks to the group, promising that his election to the House will get them what they want and warning them about police interference. “I will author legislation that’s what you want, that’s what you want passed,” Tinderholt says. “If they act foolish, smile and come find Kory [Watkins, Tinderholt’s friend and an Open Carry activist]. If I’m not here, he’ll call me.” In another video, an open carry protester tells another about the hopeful state rep: “This guy’s got our back 100 percent,” he says. “Tony Tinderholt has said, if the police ever harass you, call me immediately.”
After another demonstration, Tinderholt again urges protesters not to get too riled, because “Konni Burton, myself and a whole bunch of other people in the Senate and in the House plan on offering open carry legislation,” Tinderholt says, “that is gonna do away with restrictions like in hospitals and churches, all these places that are just like military bases,” presumably in that they currently ban personal firearms.
Tinderholt remains the probable victor, and he’s been personally backed by figures like Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick. But there’s been backlash against Tinderholt in the last couple of months. Ballweg has been endorsed by a number of Republicans, including two Arlington City Council members that Tinderholt has fought with in the past, and Dr. Ned Patrick, Diane Patrick’s husband. The Arlington police and firefighters associations have endorsed Ballweg, along with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, which predominantly endorses Republicans. Ballweg’s campaign has publicized an internal poll that puts him two points behind Tinderholt.
In a strongly-worded editorial—headline: “Invading Mexico is Not a Good Plan”—the Fort Worth Star-Telegram endorsed Ballweg and urged Arlington voters to reject Tony Tinderholt’s views, for what it’s worth. Though it acknowledged that the Republican was favored to take the district, “just as it has for at least three decades,” the paper’s editorial board expressed a small glimmer of hope that he wouldn’t. “Maybe not this year—or at least, it shouldn’t.”
One potentially discouraging sign for Democrats is that no one really seems to be investing in the race right now. Ballweg only has about $12,000 in the bank as of late September—and Tinderholt only has $5,000. But who knows, maybe the “moderate Republicans” people talk so much about will finally make themselves manifest. Can you be this nutty and win? Let’s see.