Tarrant County is on the front lines of the Republican civil war.
As the all important mid-term elections loom — and the GOP dominates in both Texas and Washington, D.C. — Republicans are turning on their own.
In local races stretching from the Texas House of Representatives to the U.S. Congress, some Republicans are questioning the conservative credentials of opponents, saying it’s time to get rid of more moderate party members who once dominated the state.
The question now is which faction — middle-of-the-roaders or those who consider themselves more conservative, more pure — will emerge victorious after party faithful head to the primary polls this year.
“There’s a war going on in the Republican Party,” said Deborah Peoples, who heads the Tarrant County Democratic Party. “Either you espouse (certain) ideology or they say you are not a good Republican.”
Especially in Tarrant County, one of the reddest areas in the country.
Here, candidates are questioning the conservative ideals of GOP incumbents ranging from state Rep. Charlie Geren to state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione. And some, such as U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, are asking whether their primary challengers are Republicans — or closet Democrats.
In addition to local challenges, the State Republican Executive Committee has censured retiring GOP House Speaker Joe Straus for blocking some priorities of party leadership. And Gov. Greg Abbott is endorsing and vocally supporting challengers to some House Republican incumbents.
“We have a section of the party that wants to throw them in the trash, even if they voted with them 98 percent of the time,” Tarrant County Republican Party Chair Tim O’Hare said. “You do one thing people disagree with and they say you’re a RINO (Republican In Name Only).
“The constant sniping and nitpicking and critiquing is at a ridiculous level.”
The end result, political observers say, could be a demoralized party that ends up driving strong candidates or politicians away. Or will moderate Republicans be pushed to the extreme just to be elected?
Democrats, particularly those hoping the blue wave hits Tarrant County and Texas, are among those waiting to see what happens.
O’Hare said he hopes the battle over GOP conservative credentials doesn’t backfire.
“There are people who tend to spend more time bashing Republicans than they do Democrats,” O’Hare said. “I don’t want to see Republicans lose seats they shouldn’t lose because of all this and then we realize, ‘Oops, we had a good thing going.’ ”
Texans will head to the polls March 6 for the primary election.
Early voting runs Feb. 20-March 2.
‘We eat our own’
Many aren’t surprised that this Republican struggle is occurring.
“In politics, there’s always going to be fights within a party,” said Don Shipe, a former Tarrant County GOP vice chairman who compiles a conservative index based on politicians’ votes. “It’s the nature of the game.”
But it’s especially important in Tarrant County.
“It’s as pure as you can get it here,” Shipe said. “The conservatives own Tarrant County. And we’re going to continue to. That’s what we’ve been working so hard for.”
In censuring Straus, GOP party officials noted that it was an unusual case and they didn’t make the move lightly.
As for Tarrant County’s GOP chair, O’Hare said he has always voted for the most conservative candidates.
But just for expressing concerns about the struggle within the party, he’s certain some will brand him as a moderate or establishment Republican.
“No one who saw my actions in office or who I voted for would ever say that,” O’Hare said. “But we eat our own.
“And we eat them and eat them and eat them.”
As the battle for the direction of the party continues, Republicans have grown less tolerant of party members who violate key tenets of their beliefs, such as family values.
“Scandals hurt the party brand,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Most politicians, when caught in an embarrassing scandal, save themselves and their family further embarrassment and step aside.”
At least two cases played out recently in Tarrant County.
One involved long-time congressman U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, after a nude photo of him ended up online.
Barton apologized for the photo but still considered seeking one more term in office, representing the 6th Congressional District — which includes part of east and southwest Fort Worth, most of Arlington and Mansfield and all of Ellis and Navarro counties — as he has done since 1985.
He met privately with a group of local Republicans, trying to determine if another term was viable. They told him it wasn’t. Soon an Arlington woman came forward with a series of private messages — some with sexual overtones — that she had exchanged with Barton, her congressman.
The next day, Barton announced he would not seek another term in office.
“Over a career spanning four decades, most politicians create enemies due to real or perceived slights and insults or other grievances,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “At the same time ... as an incumbent, Barton was invulnerable.
“That is, until the rise of the #MeToo movement combined with revelations of ethically questionable behavior and some ill-advised messages provided Barton detractors with the opening they were looking for to generate a public uproar over Barton’s behavior to force him to not seek re-election.”
Then earlier this year, Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Russ Casey — who had drawn intense GOP criticism since being reprimanded by state officials last year for an “improper sexual relationship” with a former clerk — ended his re-election bid after claims that he turned in fake signatures to secure a place on the primary ballot.
“Sometimes as a Republican, we have to take out our own garbage,” local lawyer Alex Kim, who crafted a challenge regarding Casey’s candidacy on behalf of challenger Lenny Lopez, said at the time.
As moves have been made to address concerns about local candidates, there’s not much that can be done about other Republicans across the state, and even President Donald Trump, who through his campaign and tenure has been linked to various scandals.
“Do I think Donald Trump is the ultimate role model based on his past? Absolutely not,” O’Hare said. “But at the end of the day, he was the nominee.
“And he’s 1,000 times better than Hillary Clinton ever thought of being.”
More than that, O’Hare said actions the president has taken so far during his time in the White House have needed to be done for years.
“He’s doing an excellent job and it’s righting the ship on many fronts.”
Through the years, Republicans have become more conservative and the party base has become more focused on social issues than economic priorities.
Now some believe it’s time to get rid of the more moderate Republicans, which many in the state once were, particularly when Democrats held majorities in both the House and Senate.
“The Republican Party wants people of strong character to represent us,” O’Hare said. “I hope that’s the way the Republican Party will always be. It’s something that has been consistent within the Republican Party for years.
“As soon as the Joe Barton stuff came out, I don’t know a single Republican who said, ‘Cut him some slack,’ ” O’Hare said. “They all said, ‘This is not who we want to represent us.’ ”
A key problem may be that so much information — and misinformation — is available through social media.
But some people rarely find out the whole story, instead relying on a snippet of the news here and a snippet there.
“Everybody is a critic,” O’Hare said. “People are spouting out opinions when they know two percent of the facts. In this social media age, we have a lot of people who jump to criticize immediately before gathering the facts.
“It’s a concerning thing,” he said. “If it continues, you’re going to have fewer people who run for office of good quality and good integrity. And you’ll have fewer people involved.”