That may well be the theme of the 2016 GOP primaries, as Tea Party conservatives work for more gains, establishment Republicans push back and Democrat Barack Obama will not be on the ballot to lure opponents to the polls.
“Everybody who has an ax to grind is going to be grinding,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant. “The blood is running.”
High-profile legislative races are already developing in Tarrant County nearly two months before candidates can even file to get their names on the ballot.
Two local Republican races heating up — for House District 99, represented by Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, and House District 94, now represented by Tony Tinderholt of Arlington — offer a glimpse of the type of races ramping up statewide.
“Tarrant County will be a microcosm of the battle between centrist conservative supporters and movement conservative opponents of Speaker [Joe] Straus that will take place across the state,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
“While there is no doubt that the GOP will retain its near two-thirds majority in the House, … the ideological tenor of the 2017 GOP House delegation will be decided in the spring Republican primaries.”
Political observers say voter turnout should be large in 2016, as it is for all presidential election years.
“Presidential years bring out more people,” said Harvey Kronberg, editor and publisher of the Quorum Report, an Austin-based online political newsletter. “With a Super Tuesday that might matter; it could be an anti-Tea Party year.
“There’s still an anti-incumbent attitude out there,” he said. “Voters may enjoy the disruptions of Tea Party candidates, but that doesn’t mean they want to give them the keys this year.”
Voters will head to the polls for primary elections on March 1.
House District 99
The fight for this northwestern Tarrant County district could be one of the most expensive — and most watched — battles on next year’s GOP primary ballots.
HD 99 stretches from Fort Worth to Pelican Bay and from River Crest and Azle.
On one side, there’s Geren, president of Railhead Smokehouse and a real estate developer, who has represented the district since 2001 and is a powerful top lieutenant of House Speaker Straus.
On the other, there’s Bo French, a private equity investor and political newcomer from Fort Worth, who served as a chief officer of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s tactical training company Craft International. He drew media attention last year for ending up in court arguing with Kyle’s widow about the future of the company.
The two men and their prominent families have long run in the same circles.
“I’ve known Bo all his life and I’ve known his parents a long time,” said Geren, 65, who added he was surprised when French jumped into the race. “I’m just going to run hard and win.”
French, 45, said he picked this district to run in because he knows a lot of people in the district and believes that his “principles will represent them and their families.”
Geren has long been a target for some conservatives because he was one of nearly a dozen members years ago who worked to oust Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who ruled the House with an iron fist for three sessions.
In 2009 a “Gang of 11” united behind Straus and teamed up with House Democrats, who then held nearly half of the chamber’s 150 seats. Craddick knew he didn’t have the votes to win and dropped out of the race.
Only three of those “cardinals” — Geren, Straus and state Rep. Bryon Cook, R-Corsicana — will be on the ballot next year.
Midland oilman Tim Dunn, a GOP political donor who has donated millions to candidates to move the Legislature to the right, heads the board of directors of Empower Texans, which has spent heavily trying to unseat the cardinals.
Geren said he believes that Dunn and Empower Texans will fund a negative campaign against him, benefiting French, who calls himself part of “the next generation of conservative leaders.”
“I expect Bo to run a campaign without the negative,” said Geren, who heads the powerful House Administration Committee. “But he won’t have to. Michael Quinn Sullivan (president of Empower Texans) will do that out of his shop.”
French said this race offers voters a clear choice. “This race will come down to whether people want a conservative Christian businessman representing them or someone who has been in office for 15 years,” he said.
Geren, who last reported having more than $800,000 in his war chest, said he wants to serve another term because he enjoys the job, feels that he represents the whole district and hopes to continue work on issues including transportation, water funding and water infrastructure. He said he’s going to campaign on his record.
“Since I’ve been in office, the state budget when adjusted for population and inflation is down over 10 percent,” he said. “Go back and look at my record. It’s a pretty good one.”
French, who has raised more than $100,000 for this race, including a $10,000 personal loan, said he decided to run for office to make Texas a better place.
“I am concerned about the direction of our country and what kind of world we are leaving our children,” he said. “I am fed up with politicians who say they are conservative and then get into office and forget about their campaign promises.”
House District 94
Tinderholt, a 21-year military veteran whose past included a bankruptcy filing in the 1990s and several marriages, unseated Rep. Diane Patrick in the GOP primary last year and won a fiery battle in the general election.
HD 94 is in central west Arlington and includes Pantego and Dalworthington Gardens. It stretches from Interstate 30 south to the Mansfield line and from Loop 820 east to Collins Street.
“Some ‘establishment’ conservatives may still be angry that Rep. Tinderholt defeated longtime favorite Diane Patrick and may try and unseat him,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Despite concerns he would be a vocal dissenter in the Legislature earlier this year, Tinderholt, 45, for the most part appeared to follow the typical freshman play book, watching and learning.
“You could see he was a work in progress,” Kronberg said. “He was paying attention, learning issues. But throughout North Texas, there’s some despair that there’s very little active representation of the stakeholders (business, schools) that make the community work.”
Now Andrew Piel, 43, has announced he will challenge Tinderholt in the primary..
“This last summer, people came to me and said they had concerns about the effectiveness of the incumbent representing Arlington in an efficient manner,” said Piel, a business and construction law attorney and a former Tarrant County assistant district attorney. “I talked to people for months [and] prayed about it.
“I feel like it’s time for a change.”
Piel has lined up a host of supporters, including community leader Victor Vandergriff, former Arlington Mayors Robert Cluck and Richard Greene, former state Sens. Chris Harris and Kim Brimer, former state Reps. Toby Goodman and Barbara Nash, and Arlington school board members Bowie Hogg and John Hibbs.
Tinderholt said he wasn’t surprised to draw a challenge.
“Anytime a conservative represents the interest of his constituents, you can expect pushback from the establishment,” he said. “I have a challenger who says he is conservative, however, if indeed he is a conservative Republican, then why is he running against someone ranked No. 3 most conservative in the Texas House on most scorecards?”
Tinderholt holds endorsements from a number of local legislators, including state Reps. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, Bill Zedler of Arlington and Matt Krause of Fort Worth, as well as other leaders such as NE Tarrant Tea Party leader Julie McCarty, Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams and Tarrant County Commissioner Andy Nguyen.
Tinderholt, a director of training and recruiting, said he’s seeking re-election to help build on what he started this year.
“I want to continue serving the people of District 94 by fighting for their interests,” he said. “Passing bills is only part of a necessary process in Austin. … Working to stop bad legislation is very important and I am not afraid to do it on behalf of the constituents.”
Top issues for him, he said, remain securing the border, providing tax relief and budget transparency, passing anti-abortion legislation and continuing to improve education.
Piel, meanwhile, said his top priorities include public education, creating a 21st century workforce and “truly representing Arlington.”
“I love Arlington. I love its people,” said Piel, who has been a delegate to the Republican State Convention six times. “I carry conservative values in my heart and I feel that this is an opportunity to help.”