Politics & Government

Campaign money pouring into key Texas House races as primary looms

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and a few state House Republicans in safe districts have rallied to try to protect some of their more vulnerable colleagues from primary challenges, mostly from the right.

Meanwhile influential conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan and others have spent lavishly to try to defeat key lieutenants faithful to the speaker.

Between Jan. 24 and Feb. 22, the Texas House Leadership Fund, which is supported primarily by the speaker, donated more than $200,000 to several House members, according to the latest report filed this week with the Texas Ethics Commission. Since July, the fund has distributed nearly $385,000 to House Republicans’ campaigns.

Many of the GOP incumbents’ challengers have enjoyed the support of the conservative groups Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and Empower Texans, which are led by Straus critic Sullivan and are largely funded by the wealthy and hyperconservative Midland oilman Tim Dunn.

According to the Ethics Commission, Empower Texans — doing business as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility — spent almost $481,000 from Jan. 24 to Feb. 22, and the political action committee for Empower Texans spent more than $708,000 in the same period.

Ted Delisi, an Austin-based Republican consultant who isn’t representing anyone in the hottest contests, said that while the incumbents opposed by Empower Texans are conservative, “they are not conservative enough for some critics.”

That includes Straus. The speaker, who regularly proclaims his conservative accomplishments, fended off attempts to strip him of his leadership post in the last two legislative sessions.

Personality politics are also at play, Delisi said. For example, state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, who has attracted an opponent, Cullen Crisp, backed by Empower Texans, filed a complaint against Sullivan accusing him of violating state law in 2010 and 2011 by not registering as a lobbyist while trying to influence legislation. Sullivan has denied the accusation.

Straus has a primary challenge in his San Antonio district from an Empower Texans-supported candidate. Matt Beebe, who ran against Straus in 2012, received more than $30,000 in contributions from Sullivan’s PAC in recent weeks.

Jason Embry, a spokesman for Straus, said the speaker is “committed to supporting his Republican colleagues as they campaign on the House’s conservative record.”

“That record includes balanced budgets, education reform and tax relief, and Speaker Straus is proud to stand with the members who made it possible,” Embry said.

Calls to Empower Texans and Sullivan weren’t returned.

According to campaign finance reports, the Texas House Leadership Fund recently gave donations of $25,000 to several state representatives, including: Keffer; Linda Harper Brown, R-Irving, who is being challenged by former state Rep. Rodney Anderson, who lost his seat to redistricting; Bennett Ratliff, R- Coppell, who again is fighting a challenge from Matt Rinaldi; Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, whose opponent is Jared Patterson; J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, who is running against Danny Pelton; and Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who has drawn a challenge from Bonnie Parker.

Keffer, chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, said he had expected a challenger backed by Empower Texans.

“We’re in a close race obviously,” Keffer told the Austin American-Statesman. “We’re up against Empower Texans.”

The group has long opposed representatives who have supported Straus, the veteran lawmaker said.

“They want to control who occupies the speaker’s seat,” Keffer said. “And anybody who supports Joe Straus should be replaced, in their opinion.”

Empower Texans has poured about $200,000 in resources into the campaign of Keffer’s opponent as well as giving money and in-kind contributions to nearly other 40 candidates, about half of whom are Tea Party-approved incumbents, according to the report at the Ethics Commission.

Some of the two conservative groups’ larger expenditures included two payments of more than $145,000 for running a phone bank to help those candidates running against Straus’ allies. The groups also dished out about $256,000 for printing and sending direct mail. The groups also have spent money on Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running for governor, and some state Senate candidates.

A favorite of Empower Texans, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said the group is backing candidates that subscribe to its goal of more limited government, greater personal responsibility and stricter fiscal responsibility.

Far and away, the most significant money source behind Empower Texans’ political action committee is Dunn, who contributed about $1.3 million since last fall, including $410,000 this month. Texans for Fiscal Responsibility didn’t report any contributions.

As for the Texas House Leadership Fund, Straus is its primary benefactor, giving $500,000 on Dec. 19 from his campaign. But other members — such as state Reps. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; Byron Cook, R-Corsicana; and Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton — also contributed to the fund to help Straus-friendly incumbents in tough races.

Straus also has appeared with several legislators leading up to the primary. He has campaigned with the likes of state Reps. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, and Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball.

But for all the money being spent on GOP primaries, Delisi expects little disruption to the makeup of the lower chamber.

It is very difficult to unseat an incumbent, especially when they’re popular in their districts, he said.

“I don’t think we'll see wholesale changes as a result of these primary elections,” he said.