Politics & Government

‘Get ready, Austin:’ Texas lawmakers survive challenges, look to 2017

Texas Capitol
Texas Capitol Star-Telegram

The fight isn’t over yet.

Texas’ primary elections may be settled, but 2017 is already on the minds of many.

Especially for state Rep. Jonathan Stickland — an outspoken firebrand and thorn in the side of many leaders in the Texas Legislature — who handily fended off a challenge by an establishment Republican.

“Get ready, Austin,” Stickland, R-Bedford, warned after noting that he crushed “the Austin establishment’s attempt to steal this seat.”

“My plan is to go back to Austin and do the same thing I’ve been doing — fighting for more liberty and against cronyism,” said Stickland, one of the most controversial House members, who faces a Democratic challenger in November. “I do take this election as a mandate from the voters. They appreciate my style and my positions.

“I’m empowered to be more bold than ever before.”

Stickland isn’t alone. And it’s going to be an especially important session because it’ll be the first time lawmakers will have to grapple with budget problems from the big drop in state revenue due to the oil glut. School finance and other major fiscal fights loom as well.

He and a number of legislative incumbents statewide — Tea Party members and establishment Republicans alike — won their primary re-election bids, many which were costly and hotly contested.

This came after tens of thousands of dollars poured into local and statewide races by West Texas billionaire Farris Wilks, Midland oilman Tim Dunn and Empower Texans, with the goal of moving the Texas Legislature more to the right.

Republican Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and top lieutenants — state Reps. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana — won re-election, as did a number of Tea Party incumbents.

Republican Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, amid claims he is too moderate, won his own re-election bid, as did two of his top lieutenants: state Reps. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana. Several other Straus allies won re-election bids as well.

“A couple of people who live far away from here once again tried to take this seat from our community, and they have once again failed,” Straus said after the election wrapped up.

A handful of GOP incumbents representing different factions of the party did lose, from Tomball’s Debbie Riddle, a Straus ally, to Belton’s Molly White, a Straus critic.

Tea Party incumbents stood their ground as well. That includes conservative local state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who fended off a stiff challenge by an establishment Republican.

Local victories

Stickland, who shifted into campaign mode once the 84th Legislative Session wrapped up last June, said he holds no personal vendettas from this primary season.

“Now it’s time to move forward,” the 32-year-old oil and gas consultant said.

The 85th Texas Legislature will run from Jan. 10, 2017, to May 29, 2017.

While he does face a challenge in November from Democrat Kim K. Leach, Stickland — who drew headlines last session for everything from labeling himself as a “former fetus” to being the focus of an investigation into whether witness cards were falsified — feels vindicated.

He said he knew he was a big target for many in this election.

“If the GOP establishment and Austin Lobby could get rid of only one incumbent legislator this cycle, that incumbent would most likely be Stickland,” Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, predicted last month.

Now, Stickland is considering proposals for next session that touch on everything from repealing the DREAM Act to making sure students in local school districts get their fair share of funding through school refinancing proposals.

“I feel a lot of pressure from an entire movement,” Stickland said, defining the movement as a group of grassroots conservatives “who are sick of the ruling class, the establishment folks.”

I’m here to fight for a movement and everything is at stake.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford

“I’m here to fight for a movement and everything is at stake,” he said. “I’ll do my part to grow it.”

Meanwhile, Tinderholt, who two years ago shocked many by toppling then-incumbent Diane Patrick, handily won his re-election bid, also besting an establishment challenger.

On Election night, he said he felt good about the results and believes they sent a strong message.

“I think the numbers are a testament of running a positive campaign other than a mudslinging campaign,” he said. “Also, this is it’s a result of doing what you said you would do.”

Tinderholt faces no Democratic challenger in November’s general election.

Statewide wins or losses?

Tuesday’s election was a mixed bag, with some supporters of Straus — who is expected to easily nab another term as House Speaker next year — winning and others losing.

In an election that drew many anti-establishment voters to the polls, Straus, who was involved in a costly re-election bid for his San Antonio House seat, handily claimed victory.

And he noted that all the money poured into the race wasn’t enough to sway people in his district.

Angry rhetoric and dishonest ads are no match for a well-organized campaign that looks to a brighter future.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus

“Voters showed that angry rhetoric and dishonest ads are no match for a well-organized campaign that looks to a brighter future,” he said that night.

On Straus’s leadership team, Cook had the closest election, winning his re-election effort by 222 votes — 50.38 percent to 49.61 percent — over Thomas McNutt, whose family owns the Corsicana-based Collin Street Bakery.

A handful of Straus GOP committee chairs won re-election: state Reps. Dan Flynn of Van, John Frullo of Lubbock and Jodie Laubenberg of Parker. Some — state Reps. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, and Doug Miller, R-New Braunfels — are heading to runoffs.

Still more Straus supporters, state Reps. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, and Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, lost outright.

Looking ahead

Geren, first elected in 2001, faced a stiff challenge for District 99 from conservative Bo French, a family friend who was making his first bid for public office.

This race, a controversial and often nasty fight that topped the $1 million mark, grew heated in the days before the election as accusations ramped up over negative attacks.

Texas primary election results

French, among the beneficiaries of funding from Dunn and Empower Texans, was caught up in days before the election in legal maneuvers by Taya Kyle, the widow of claim Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who sent a “cease-and-desist” letter to him demanding that her husband’s likeness and name not be used in his campaign literature.

After the results were tallied on Election night, Geren noted: “I think my constituents are tired of people from Midland (and elsewhere) trying to buy District 99.”

Winning the GOPs nomination nearly guarantees Geren another two years in the House because he faces no Democratic challenger in November’s general election.

Late last week, as many primary victors began to mentally map out plans for the next Legislative Session, which starts Jan. 10, 2017, Geren took a break.

I’m fishing in the bay in South Padre.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth

“I’m fishing in the bay in South Padre,” he said by telephone. “It is full-on relaxation time.

“I’m glad to be through the election,” he said. “I’m going to enjoy the next three to four days off and then I’ll get back to work.”

Before heading out of town, Geren and other lawmakers touched base, congratulating each other on winning their races.

One of those lawmakers was Stickland.

“We had a good conversation,” Stickland said. “We congratulated each other and said we look forward to working with each other.

“We aren’t going to be best friends,” he said. “But there is a certain level of respect for this process we share.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley