Politics & Government

Big bucks flowing to Tarrant County legislative races

Tarrant County legislative races have already drawn more than $1.2 million in campaign finance contributions.
Tarrant County legislative races have already drawn more than $1.2 million in campaign finance contributions. abcnews.go.com

Upcoming primaries for local Texas House seats have become big-dollar battles.

A handful of contested local races have already drawn more than $1.2 million, with Republican state Reps. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth and Jonathan Stickland of Bedford claiming the largest amounts.

“Tarrant County is the epicenter of a Texas House GOP civil war taking place throughout the state this election cycle between the Republican Party’s establishment conservative and movement conservative wings,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

Two local GOP state representatives, Stickland and Tony Tinderholt of Arlington, are among those most targeted by establishment conservatives in Texas. And Geren, a key member of House Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team, remains targeted by movement conservatives, Jones said.

“These three races are without question among the top 10 2016 battles between the Texas GOP’s movement conservative and establishment conservative wings that are taking place in House primaries [statewide] … from Lubbock to Texarkana,” he said.

With six weeks until the March 1 primary, new campaign finance reports detailing donations from the last six months of 2015 give a glimpse into the legislative races ramping up in Tarrant County.

More money is expected to flood in before the March 1 primary.

“These races are setting up as some of the most important primaries in the state,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, an associate political science professor at the University of Houston. “The cut and thrust of Republican primary infighting will be on full display in Tarrant County in the next few months.”

Here’s a look at the money in local legislative races, according to the most recent campaign finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

House District 99

The most expensive local race right now is for House District 99.

Longtime lawmaker Charlie Geren faces off against political novice and family friend Bo French to determine who represents this northwestern Tarrant County district.

Geren, president of Railhead Smokehouse and a real estate developer, has held the post since 2001 and is a powerful top lieutenant of Straus. French is a private equity investor who once worked for the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s tactical training company and drew media attention for ending up in court arguing with Kyle’s widow about the future of the company.

Geren reported raising nearly $430,000, spending nearly $250,000 and having $955,808 cash on hand, reports show.

His donations include $15,350 from the Associated General Contractors of Texas PAC; $10,000 from the Blackridge Austin-based government affairs practice; $2,500 from Charles E. Butt, CEO of the H-E-B grocery store chain; $5,000 from the Coalition for Better Transportation of Dallas; and $2,000 from the CVS Health PAC.

French reported raising nearly $160,000, spending nearly $95,000 and having $136,092 on hand. He also reported nearly $25,000 in outstanding loans.

His donations include $1,500 from Mercedes Bass of Fort Worth; $1,245 from the NE Tarrant Tea Party; $5,000 from Timothy Dunn, a Midland oilman and GOP political donor who has donated millions to candidates trying to move the Legislature to the right; and $5,000 from the Empower Texans PAC, which is headed by Dunn and has spent heavily trying to unseat Straus’ cardinals such as Geren.

“Money follows contested races,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “With the money these candidates have, they also have polling data. And if polling data show a close race, donors are more likely to give — on both sides.

“Like everything else in politics, it comes down to the judgment of donors as to where their money might make a difference on primary day.”

District 92

Another high-dollar local race is the fight for House District 92.

This race, which pits outspoken incumbent Stickland against Euless pastor Scott W. Fisher, is expected to divide social conservatives and fiscal-focused Tea Party conservatives.

Stickland has raised $320,000, spent nearly $150,000 and has $184,430 on hand.

His donations include $51,000 from Monty Bennett, a Dallas hotel investor who is suing the Tarrant Regional Water District; $77,000 from the Empower Texans PAC; $50,000 from Farris and JoAnn Wilks of Cisco, billionaires who donate to the Empower Texans PAC; and $250 from former Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis of Fort Worth.

Fisher has raised nearly $95,000, spent $66,000 and has $28,753 cash on hand.

His donations include $1,000 from Michael Berry, president of Alliance developer Hillwood Properties; $3,000 from the Committee for Public Safety for the Fort Worth Police Officers Association; and thousands of dollars from current and past Republican legislators including former Sen. John Carona of Dallas, former Reps. Rob Orr of Burleson and Vicki Truitt of Keller and Rep. John Otto of Dayton.

The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Kim K. Leach in November.

“Rep. Geren and Stickland’s districts will be competitive and all sides will be flush with cash,” Rottinghaus said. “Geren is a perennial target for the Tea Party groups and Stickland has happily crossed swords with several in the party.

“Movement conservatives will spend big money against Geren and several former or outgoing members have donated to Stickland’s opponent.”

District 94

The third-costliest Tarrant County race is for House District 94, between Tinderholt, a 21-year military veteran who unseated Diane Patrick, and challenger Andrew Piel, a business and construction lawyer and former Tarrant County assistant district attorney.

Tinderholt has raised more than $191,000, spent nearly $85,000 and has $113,473 on hand. He has nearly $19,000 in outstanding loans.

His donations include $50,000 from the Empower Texans PAC; $50,000 from Stephen Lockwood, a property manager from Mansfield; $25,000 from billionaire Farris Wilks; and $2,239 from the NE Tarrant Tea Party PAC.

Piel has raised more than $41,000, spent nearly $23,000 and has just over $20,000 on hand. He also has $2,379 in outstanding loans.

His donations include $5,000 from Mojy Haddad, a longtime Arlington businessman; $7,500 from the Texas Building Branch AGC PAC; and $1,000 from former state Rep. Barbara Nash, R-Arlington.

“Incumbents challenged by strong challengers … have to spend a lot of money to match or exceed strong challengers,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“Unless there are strong contested races in a general election the dollars spent in primaries may outnumber general election dollars.”

Other races

Here’s a look at two other contested legislative primary races in Tarrant County:

District 96: State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, has raised $15,239 for his re-election bid, spent $21,764 and has nearly $50,000 on hand. No report had been filed online as of Tuesday afternoon with the Texas Ethics Commission for his challenger, Wesley Nelson. The winner will face off against Democrat Sandra D. Lee in November.

District 97: Two Democrats are squaring off to see who will challenge state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, in November. Elizabeth Tarrant has raised $865, spent $837 and has $27 cash on hand. Andrew T. McKernon has raised $50, spent $59, and has $200 on hand. He also has an outstanding loan of $200.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

KEY ELECTION DATES

Feb. 1 — Last day to register to vote in the March 1 primaries or to update any voter information.

Feb. 16 — Early voting for March 1 primaries starts.

Feb. 19 — Last day to apply for ballot by mail. (For information in Tarrant County, call 817-831-8683).

Feb. 26 — Last day to vote early in March 1 primaries.

March 1 — Primary election day. Polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Also last day to receive any ballots in the mail.)

Sources: Texas secretary of state’s office, Tarrant County Elections Office

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