Primary election reveals Tarrant County Republican shift

dfwnewsa | March 6, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Primary election reveals Tarrant County Republican shift

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks about voucher legislation April 19, 2024, at Nolan Catholic High School. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)
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Several Tarrant County Republican primary contests echoed statewide results, shifting local political power farther to the right and toward political action committees that poured money into the races.

Challenges to Republican incumbents from the right swept Texas. After a contentious legislative session, well-funded challengers mounted challenges against Republican incumbents who participated in the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton or opposed Gov. Greg Abbott’s push to pass a signature school voucher program. 

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“This is very unusual for a governor and or an attorney general to actively go after a dozen or so legislators,” said Thomas Marshall, a retired University of Texas at Arlington political science professor. “What we’re seeing now is the center of gravity is shifting back to top office holders  and their considerable financial resources.”

Typically, it’s very difficult to vote an incumbent out of office, Marshall said. 

James Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University, said the impact of former President Donald Trump and low turnout also need to be considered when analyzing Tuesday’s primary results. 

“His name was literally on the ballot. Paxton and Abbott’s names were not on the ballot, and while they were prominent in ads, orchestrating campaign contributions, I think we’d be remiss to think that their influence could be separated from the influence of Donald Trump,” Riddlesperger said. 

Among the incumbents squaring off in a runoff against challengers from the right is state House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont. He faces well-funded David Covey, who received support from donors and activists to the right of Phelan. 

In a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, Paxton called for Phelan and Covey’s runoff to be a “rallying cry” for conservatives.

“The battle lines are drawn, and our resolve has never been stronger. We will not rest until we have secured victory in this runoff and reclaimed our state from the forces of Dade Phelan and his liberal backers,” Paxton wrote.  

Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, used the apparent division in the Republican Party to fundraise for Democratic candidates Wednesday. 

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“The Republican civil war represents the dissolution of their party into chaos — and it threatens to bring the rest of Texas down with them,” Hinojosa said in a fundraising email. 

Longtime incumbent state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, was forced to compete in a runoff for the second primary year in a row. Klick pulled 48% of the vote in Texas House District 91, while her challenger, David Lowe, got 46%. 

Lowe received support from the Texans United for a Conservative Majority PAC, a rebrand of Defend Texas Liberty, which is backing opponents of legislators who voted to impeach Paxton, such as Klick. 

Klick and Lowe competed against each other in a runoff in 2022, which Klick ended up winning with 54% of the vote. Lowe pointed out that the gap between Klick and him narrowed between 2022 and 2024, although he does not attribute the closing gap to pro-Paxton sentiments.

“They are just doing enough to get elected and people are tired of it,” Lowe. “She ran a ton of TV ads, Abbott came down to support her and still half of voters rejected her.” 

Another longtime incumbent, state Rep. Charlie Geren, defeated his Paxton-supported challenger with 62% of the vote. Challenger Jack Reynolds received 39% and was Geren’s first opponent since 2018. That year, he defeated Tarrant County Republicans’ current chair Bo French with 56% of the vote. 

Geren was one of five House members on the General Investigating Committee who alleged Paxton abused his office and broke the law. Riddlesperger counts Geren as handily defeating his Paxton-supported challenger. 

Reynolds received his largest donation, $25,000, from the Family Empowerment Coalition PAC, which stated in November it would support challengers to incumbents who “repeatedly opposed school choice.”

Texas House members were among the top targets of Defend Texas Liberty and other deep-pocketed interest groups. That includes Glenn Rogers, R-Weatherford, who was defeated by Mike Olcott with 63% of the vote. Rogers attributed his loss to Abbott and Texans United for a Conservative Majority in a guest column in the Weatherford Democrat on March 6. 

“This morning, I have no regrets,” Rogers wrote. “History will prove Ken Paxton is a corrupt, sophisticated criminal. History will prove vouchers are simply an expensive entitlement program for the wealthy and a get rich scheme for voucher vendors. History will prove Gov. Greg Abbott is a liar.”

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Other races display local shift

In the race to replace longtime U.S. Congresswoman Kay Granger, State Rep. Craig Goldman vastly outraised his four opponents, but couldn’t avoid a runoff and will face John O’Shea. Goldman was the highest vote-getter with 44% of the vote, while O’Shea received 26%. 

O’Shea is a friend of the attorney general and received an endorsement from Paxton, while Goldman was one of 60 Republicans to impeach Paxton. However, Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick endorsed Goldman. 

Despite Goldman raising nearly four times more money than O’Shea, his runoff campaign could be hindered by the fact that primary voters tend to be very conservative, but runoff voters tend to lean even further that way, political science professor Marshall said. 

“Very, very conservative Republicans … have an advantage in the sense that they’re clear and for voters, it’s easy to figure out what they are,” Marshall said. 

O’Shea pitched himself as the anti-establishment candidate at the Fort Worth Report’s debate on Feb. 8.

“While all four of us represent kind of grassroots outsiders running for this office because of our love of country, we have a gentleman who was not elected but was selected to run for this seat, and the entire establishment has thrown their weight behind him with all the money,” O’Shea said to the crowd.

A lack of competitive races higher on the ballot also likely resulted in low turnout across the state, Riddlesperger said. 

“What happens when you have lower turnout? You tend to have the more extreme members of the political party, the more motivated members of the political party turning out … against some of the more moderate candidates,” Riddlesperger said. 

The split in the Republican Party also could be seen locally in the State Board of Education race. Pat Hardy, who was first elected to the State Board of Education in 2002, lost in the primary to Brandon Hall.  

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Hardy points to money raised as a key factor in the race’s results. Hall raised more than $500,000, mostly through a last-minute push from the political action committee Texans for Educational Freedom, which according to the group’s website opposes critical race theory in schools by supporting conservative candidates. 

Hardy had raised more than $58,000 since January. The board is shifting further to the right after two incumbent Republicans lost their primaries in 2022, Hardy said. The board has 10 Republicans and five Democrats.

“We’re going to see some mess ups on academics because these people that are getting on the board don’t know doodle and squat about standards, and they’re losing people who do have that knowledge,” Hardy said. 

In the only contested countywide Republican primary, the race may be subject to a recount. Incumbent Tax Assessor-Collector Wendy Burgess lost to challenger Rick Barnes, the former Tarrant County GOP chair, by less than 1,000 votes after a contentious campaign. Barnes was endorsed by County Judge Tim O’Hare, state Rep. Nate Schatzline and former state Rep. Matt Krause. 

It’s not surprising that even more local races are being colored by an even more partisan lens, Riddlesperger said. 

Although Paxton and Abbott saw mixed results from their campaigns to unseat legislators who went against their priorities, the successes they did have will send a message to legislators who want to keep their seat the next time they are up for reelection, Marshall said. 

“Most legislators are pretty interested in self-protection and coming back,” Marshall said. “If somebody was defeated, who ordinarily wouldn’t be, you’ve got to ask yourself, could this happen to me? … People who might waver begin to think whether this fight is worth fighting anymore.”

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via X.

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