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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Republican runoffs in Texas highlight deeper rifts in GOP

In Texas, tight GOP races at the state and national level underscore patterns of polarization seen throughout the party.

(CN) — In Texas’ 23rd congressional district, which stretches across the state from San Antonio to El Paso, incumbent Republican Representative Tony Gonzales is facing a tough runoff challenge from the right.

Gonzales, who took office in 2021, is hardly a liberal. One of his first acts in Congress was signing on to a letter alleging irregularities in the 2020 election. But the congressman, whose district includes the site of the Robb Elementary School shooting, drew ire from fellow Texas Republicans when he backed a bipartisan gun-reform bill in 2022. That vote helped earn Gonzales a censure from the Texas GOP, as well as a tough election challenge this year from Brandon Herrera, a Second Amendment activist and influencer who calls himself “the AK Guy.”

Similar stories are playing out in Texas and across the country, as Republican incumbents find themselves in tough races against far-right challengers. The trend comes as former President Donald Trump seeks to prop up loyalists in the party, sometimes at the expense of established GOP politicians.

The trend may be particularly pronounced in Texas, where GOP members have publicly split over issues like school vouchers and the unsuccessful impeachment of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Though vouchers have been pushed by Republican Governor Greg Abbott, many rural Texas Republicans oppose them, fearing they’ll take money away from public schools without creating viable alternatives. 

Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, a Repubican who presided over the Paxton impeachment proceedings, was forced into a runoff against a Trump- and Paxton-endorsed candidate who describes himself as a political outsider. Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Houston-area Republican who has said that claims of election fraud in 2020 were “always a lie,” narrowly won his own primary.

This year in Texas, seven Republican primaries for the U.S. House of Representatives have gone to runoffs after no candidate could secure a clear majority during primaries in March. That doesn’t even count state-level races like Phelan’s.

Runoff elections will happen on May 28. Like Gonzales, other Republicans incumbents are trying to prove their bona fides to the Texas GOP’s increasingly conservative base.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, gavels in the state House of Representatives before voting on a controversial election restrictions bill on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News Service)

Consider Texas’ 12th congressional district on the west side of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In that race, state Representative Craig Goldman held a commanding 18% lead over local businessman John O’Shea heading into the March primary election.

In the end, though, Goldman couldn’t cross the 50% threshold. Like Gonzales, he will now face a runoff.

Both Goldman and O’Shea are trying to fill the shoes of longtime Republican Representative Kay Granger, who is not seeking reelection. Granger has served for 25 years on the influential House Appropriations Committee and was the first Texas woman elected to the U.S. House back in 1997.

Many Republicans viewed Goldman as Granger’s natural successor. He’s the preferred candidate of the political and business establishment, Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said in an interview.

Goldman “is careful to keep conservative bona fides,” Jillson said, “but also careful to be sure he can talk to people throughout the party and across the aisle.” Still, Goldman had drawn heat for voting for Paxton’s impeachment. O’Shea has won endorsements from Paxton and other far-right figures, while Goldman has garnered endorsements from many established Texas Republicans, including Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Kay Granger herself.

Also in the Dallas area, the Republican primary in Texas’ 32nd congressional district has received comparatively little media coverage. The district, after all, has been trending blue.

But the Republican primary here saw a similar dynamic, as two city councilmembers face off in the small but close race. At a recent Republican event in Plano, Dallas’ David Blewett said he was coming from a “center-right perspective” and wanted to “represent everybody,” while Alrington’s Darrell Day described himself as an “America-first constitutionalist” and the “actual conservative.” The two men in March earned 44% and 38% of the Republican vote, respectively, and are now also headed for a runoff.

Back in West Texas, Gonzales has continued to separate himself from his most conservative colleagues with votes in favor of gay-marriage legislation and against far-right candidates for Speaker of the House. He’s drawn endorsements from prominent Texas Republicans, including Governor Greg Abbott. 

Herrera the AK Guy has racked up out-of-state endorsements and donations, including from far-right Florida Representative Matt Gaetz and other members of the House Freedom Caucus. He’s also banking that his reputation as a gun influencer will boost his chances.

Gonzales has significantly outraised Herrera, netting nearly $4.5 million compared to Herrera’s $1.4 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings. But writing off Herrera would be a mistake, said David Crockett, a political science at Trinity University.

“Name recognition is usually an incumbent’s biggest advantage, but in this race both candidates have it,” he said. “My kids know about Herrera, and we’re not even in his district.”

Runoffs “can be very unpredictable,” Crockett said — and that may be particularly true now. Citing factors like the Paxton impeachment fight, he said that “partisan polarization at the national level seems to be permeating to the state and local level.”

 “We’re past the days of all politics is local,” Crockett said, riffing off a famous quote from former Massachusetts Representative Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. For proof, look no further than the 2024 elections in Texas, in which even a Trump-supporting Republican incumbent like Gonzales couldn't make it through his primary.

Categories / Elections, Politics, Regional

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