The Texas House is in the midst of a Republican civil war.
In this year's elections, hundreds of thousands of dollars were in play as conservatives — including state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford — continued a push to move the needle farther to the right in the lower chamber, which is on the verge of electing its first new speaker in a decade.
By November, Texans will know whether efforts to make the House more conservative were successful.
“Our recent politics are so polarized that both parties have members who want to push their parties to their ideological extremes,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “It will be interesting to see ... if those nomination victories jeopardize Republican wins in the fall.”
Retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, who donated and worked to help “responsible candidates who will put their communities first,” believes Texans have already spoken.
“The results in these runoffs and in the March primaries clearly demonstrate that Republican voters want constructive and pragmatic leadership for our fast-growing state,” Straus said in a statement.
Not everyone is as sure.
Empower Texans (which is largely funded by oilmen such as Tim Dunn from Midland and the Wilks Brothers from Cisco) and GOP House members such as Stickland invested in this year's primary races and believe they saw some positive results.
That group has worked through the years to put uber-conservative Republicans and a new leader in the chamber, where efforts such as the one to determine where transgender Texans may use the restroom have played out and died.
Stickland waded into the battle this year, using around $300,000 in campaign money to help nearly two dozen conservative political newcomers, hoping to grow the Freedom Caucus in the House.
In some cases, that meant opposing Republican incumbents, something Stickland had no problem doing.
“I feel a responsibility to the grassroots in Texas to expose people who run as conservatives and legislate like liberals," said Stickland, long considered a political bomb-thrower. "I think it’s powerful when a colleague stands up and says, 'I worked with him every day and he didn’t do what he said he would do.' "
Stickland said he saw both wins and losses in this year’s primary and runoff elections.
For now, he said he needs to focus on his re-election bid against Democrat Steve Riddell in November — and shore up his campaign coffers.
But he said he hopes his investment this year pays off.
“What can a bigger Freedom Caucus do? I think the next Speaker of the House will have to have the support of the Freedom Caucus to win,” he said. “I hope we have a bigger seat at the table than Straus and the Democrats have given us over the years.”
The Freedom Caucus was formed last year by about a dozen Republicans, including several from Tarrant County, to fight for conservative issues such as regulating bathroom use, adding more restrictions to abortions and giving subsidies to private schools.
The group at times became vocal and confrontational in efforts to challenge Straus and others.
Caucus members fought back, deep into the 85th Legislative Session, when members upset about their proposals being overlooked used procedural maneuvers to kill more than 100 bills in what became known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”
Stickland said his work in elections this year has been to grow the caucus so it will become more powerful.
"Rep. Stickland views his role in the Texas House to be both an individual representative but also an institution builder, with the Freedom Caucus the institution he is helping to build as a counterweight to the more centrist establishment conservative wing of the GOP that has controlled the Texas House since 2009," said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.
"As we saw in 2017, with only 12 members out of a GOP Caucus of 95 and a House of 150, when it acted as a single force, the Freedom Caucus (was) quite effective at times, suggesting that if its size were to increase to say 18 to 20 in 2019, it would find itself to be even more influential both within the GOP Caucus as well as within the House more generally."
Stickland said he got involved earlier this year after he raised more than $300,000 in campaign contributions, bought a passenger van and hired a block-walking staff — but didn’t draw a primary opponent.
"The bulk of Rep. Stickland's donations were funneled to him from other Republican mega-donors," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. "The point of these donations is to set Rep. Stickland up as a political anchor for legislative races, boosting his influence.
"The signal this sends to future candidates looking for backing from these groups is that they need to behave politically and legislate more like Jonathan Stickland," he said. "In that way, Rep. Stickland is held up as the new movement conservative model."
He said he asked his team to travel the state and help with block walking, phone banking, even mailers for conservative candidates in other parts of Texas.
Stickland and Rep. Sarah Davis of Houston sniped at each other on social media during the campaign and she said it was odd to see politicians from outside her district weighing in on her race.
“My race is definitely probably bigger than just me,” she told the Houston Chronicle. “It probably is about where the party’s going to go.”
Davis defeated Susanna Dokupil, who was backed by Stickland.
“I’ve had to eat crow in some of these races,” Stickland said. “I need to talk (to incumbents) and explain to them it wasn’t personal. It was the way they voted.”
Close to home
Stickland noted that he stayed out of some races, such as those involving state Reps. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.
“Those were too close to home,” he said.
But Stickland did weigh in on one local race — the battle for the Euless City Council between Salman Bhojani and Molly Maddux.
Stickland said he decided to help fund Maddux’s campaign before she ever launched it. He had staffers, including his block walking team, hitting the streets to help her campaign.
But the race heated up when Stickland posted a note on Facebook saying: “EULESS RESIDENTS BEWARE: Currently, the Mid-Cities Democrats are pushing a slate of progressive liberals in our non-partisan city council elections. Salman Bhojani should be familiar to many of you. He ran and narrowly lost last cycle. He is a Muslim, lawyer, and a lifelong Democrat who supports raising your taxes. ...”
Stickland said he only brought up religion after Bhojani did.
Bhojani won the race by 37 votes.
'Long term strategy'
The plan to grow the Freedom Caucus slowly but steadily may be effective, Rottinghaus said.
"If two or three like-minded legislators are elected every cycle, and if more moderates retire and are replaced by more conservative legislators, that long-term strategy will slowly build towards serious influence in the Republican Caucus that cannot be ignored for long," he said. "We have already seen their influence increase in some ways in the last legislative session."
Empower Texans President Michael Quinn Sullivan has already claimed victory this year, saying that “every member of the Freedom Caucus returns in 2019 and they’re coming with friends.”
Stickland said that sounds good to him.
This year, he said, has “really been about building the conservative empire,” he said. “It’s trying to build up the whole movement.”