Second in a series of reports on the chief presidential contenders in Texas’ March 1 primary.
Ask Shirley Spellerberg to critique the current state of American politics and she can be as unflinchingly direct as the man she supports for president.
“I’m fed up with political correctness and Republicans who talk a good talk and don’t do anything when they get there,” said Spellerberg, an octogenarian who served for 16 years as mayor of Corinth in Denton County. “I’m just tired of pussyfooting around and want somebody that will stand and fight.”
For Spellerberg, the somebody is billionaire Donald Trump, who sits atop the field in the countdown to the first-in-the-nation delegate contest in Iowa in just over a week, on Feb. 1. And as the 2016 presidential race officially unfolds after more than a year of anticipation, Spellerberg and other Trump loyalists in Texas are preparing for another critical turn in the presidential battle when Texas and nearly a dozen other states hold Super Tuesday contests on March 1.
At stake in Texas ar
e 155 delegates, the second-largest batch in the nation and the equivalent of one-eighth of the number needed to pick the 2016 Republican nominee. It looms as the biggest prize on Super Tuesday and therefore positions the Lone Star State to play a major role in deciding which Republican faces the Democratic nominee in November.
Mirroring the trend nationally, the race in Texas is seen largely as a two-man confrontation between the New York businessman and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who held an overwhelming lead among Republican voters until Trump stormed into the race and began to undercut Cruz’s Tea Party-laced support in his home state.
Trump led Cruz by 21 percent to 16 percent in a Lyceum Poll conducted Sept. 8-21 and was tied with Cruz at 27 percent apiece in a poll by The Texas Tribune and the University of Texas taken Oct. 30-Nov. 8.
Both candidates are largely competing for the same space as anti-establishment outsiders with a strong appeal to Tea Party activists and other grassroots conservatives fed up with business as usual in American politics. Former Tea Party leader Katrina Pierson of Garland, who was a volunteer in Cruz’s 2012 Senate race, is now national spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign.
In a half-hour telephone interview last week, Pierson said the campaign has assembled thousands of volunteers, is organized in all of the state’s congressional districts and plans to roll out high-profile endorsements as the race moves closer to Texas. The campaign has also launched coalitions of voter groups such as Texas Women for Trump, comprising more than 100 Republican activists, community leaders and entrepreneurs, including more than 30 women from North Texas.
Political consultant Corbin Casteel was named as the campaign’s first state director but left in mid-January and was replaced by Joshua Jones, a veteran campaign operative who was deputy director. Eric Mahroum of Fort Worth, who ran for the State Board of Education in 2014, is the current deputy director.
Trump drew massive crowds in his initial appearances in Texas last year, speaking before more than 15,000 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas in September and thousands more in Beaumont in November. Pierson said he “is definitely going back to Texas in February” for “a trip or two” in advance of the primary although the dates and number of appearances haven’t been determined.
Trump’s immigration plan, which includes the deportation of more than 10 million illegal immigrants, will top the list of issues that he plans to stress in his bid in Texas’ primary, Pierson said, along with his pledge to bring “real-world business experience” to the White House and slash burdensome regulations that thwart economic growth.
And, she says, Trump will not disappoint Texas supporters drawn by his blunt talk and unorthodox, controversial positions. “First and foremost, he is not politically correct and I think we can all agree,” she said. “We’re not concerned with the political class. We’re not concerned with the conservative elite. We’re just concerned with the voters.”
Keith Sheldon of Argyle, managing partner of Grand Prairie Ford, says he became a Trump fan more than 30 years ago when he read the billionaire’s autobiographical The Art of the Deal after it hit bookshelves in 1987. Now, after a successful business career himself, the 51-year-old executive says Trump’s business skills should be planted in the White House.
“I don’t think any of these other candidates are qualified to be president,” he said. “We need a CEO-type personality in the White House.”
Julia Dianne Fritz of Granbury, a member of the Trump women’s coalition, calls herself a “Trump believer” who is working with allies to build support for him in her North Texas community. “We’re just little soldiers out there spreading the word,” she said.
A Cruz-Trump battle that turned ugly after the two dissolved their short-term “bromance” — a period marked by relatively nonhostile politeness — could get even uglier as the campaign turns to Texas, if both candidates are still in play.
In the absence of recent polls, some analysts and party activists say they believe that Cruz has an edge in Texas because he is a a home-state senator and has entrenched support from conservative activists who helped him win the 2012 Senate race. But at the same time, Trump also has an energized and growing following.
“He has significant support,” said Tarrant County Republican Chairwoman Jennifer Hall. “I have people almost everyday asking for Trump signs.”
University of Texas professor Daron Shaw, who oversees the Texas Lyceum Poll, said that Trump’s support in Texas stems in large part from the perception that the billionaire dealmaker and negotiator would be a strong leader who wouldn’t let America’s adversaries “run over us.”
“That sense that he’s a strong leader has really been part of his appeal, and in Texas, strong leaders really do well,” Shaw said. “That’s a trait that sells well everywhere, but in Texas it’s especially effective.”
Donald Trump at a glance
Born: Donald John Trump in Queens, New York
Father was a builder and developer, mother a philanthropist
Grew up: Queens, sent to New York Military Academy at age 13
Education: Began college at Fordham University, then transferred to Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1968 with an economics degree
Family: Married: current wife, Melania Knauss; previously married to Marla Maples and Ivana Zelnickova; three sons and two daughters
Got his start with his father’s real estate company in 1968
Moved to Manhattan in 1971, where his businesses took off, from office and hotels to casinos and golf courses
Entertainment personality with a resume stretching from starring in “The Apprentice” on NBC to owning the Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants for almost a decade
Had considered running for president before, but chose to stick with “The Apprentice” and other projects instead