Texas A&M looms large in primary between GOP incumbent and challenger with strong Aggie ties

John Harvey Slocum has plastered his campaign materials with Texas A&Ms maroon-and-white color scheme, along with images of the campus and football stadium. The materials appear to run afoul of a university rule against using symbols, insignias, or other identifying marks in connection with political activity. (Shelby Knowles For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Knowles For The Texas Tribune)

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Texas' biggest university is getting swept up in one of the most closely watched Republican primaries for state House.

State Rep. John Raney of College Station is facing a primary challenge from John Harvey Slocum, the son of RC Slocum, the beloved former football coach at Texas A&M University. Raney also has history with the university, as a graduate and founder of the off-campus Texas Aggieland Bookstore.

John Harvey Slocum has plastered his campaign materials with the school's signature maroon-and-white color scheme, along with images of the campus and football stadium. He has even included the school logo in the backdrop of one fundraiser invitation.

But the materials appear to run afoul of a university rule that "prohibits the use of any of its symbols, insignias, or other identifying marks" in connection with political activity. A university spokesperson said its licensing department reached out to Slocum's campaign after learning about the materials and "alerted them to the violation."

"They said they would cooperate," the spokesperson, Kelly Brown, said in an email. "If it continues, we will follow our procedure by sending a cease and desist letter."

Raney is criticizing Slocum over the materials.

"I think it demonstrates a lack of judgment on his part, and frankly a lack of respect for Texas A&M University," Raney said in a statement. "At any rate, I think he owes an apology to Texas A&M and an apology to the Aggies of this community for trying to dishonestly imply that he has the support of Texas A&M in this campaign."

Slocum's campaign is not backing away from its embrace of A&M. His consultant, Josh Robinson, said it is "pretty hard" not to include A&M in the campaign because it is so central to Slocum's life story.

"To tell his story, we have to reference and show his time at A&M, and we are proud to be a Texas Aggie," Robinson said, noting that "two-thirds of [Slocum's] closest is maroon and white."

"It is not a lack of respect in any way as Mr. Raney is insinuating."

Despite the A&M statement, it is unclear how much Slocum is cooperating with the university. As of Wednesday, Slocum was airing a TV ad that includes an old photo of the university's football players and an aerial shot of the campus.

The issue is undoubtedly a gray area for campaigns, and Slocum is not alone in showing off A&M in his bid. Raney, for example, shared an endorsement last month from U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, that included a photo of McCaul wearing a crimson shirt with the A&M logo.

The primary has been mostly cordial until now. Robinson said the Slocum campaign finds it interesting that Raney is not the chair of the Aggie Legislative Caucus, saying people are "noticing that the Brazos Valley does not have a leader in the state House." The current chair is Rep. Kyle Kacal of Bryan. Raney founded the caucus and served as its first chair in 2019, and members take turns chairing it every session, according to Raney's campaign.

The primary is one of the most interesting races involving a challenger on the March 1 ballot. It's playing out in a community that's famously supportive of its university, especially the football team. A&M is the key driver of the local community. Its football games regularly draw more than 100,000 fans — a population roughly similar to the city of College Station.

Slocum got in the race at the last minute — minutes before the December filing deadline — and poses a unique threat given his family name, which is well known in Aggieland. RC Slocum was the head football coach at A&M from 1989 to 2002, becoming its winningest coach ever. He served as interim athletic director in 2019 and remains employed by the university as a special assistant to the president.

John Harvey Slocum has highlighted his father in his campaign. An invite for a campaign fundraiser Tuesday said supporters could pay $500 to get a picture with special guests, including RC Slocum.

Brown said such activity is OK for a university employee as long as they are "representing himself/herself" at the event.

John Harvey Slocum has largely been running a positive campaign, touting the "homegrown leadership" he would provide and talking about common Republican issues like border security and the economy. He has also made clear that A&M is a central part of his desire to serve.

"I made that decision to run based on a community and a university that I love," John Harvey Slocum said at his campaign kickoff. "We have the brightest minds in the world right there down the street at A&M, and we should have someone working every day to create opportunities to keep those kids here and let them have the privileges that we have to live in this community."

Armed with the support of House Speaker Dade Phelan, Raney has been running on the things Republicans accomplished in the recent legislative sessions, like increased border security spending and a law that punishes local governments that seek to "defund the police." Raney also is not letting voters forget about his connection to A&M: A TV ad calls him a "proud Texas Aggie" as it shows him driving his car, with a closeup shot of the class ring on his finger.

Slocum has been a serious fundraiser. Slocum has said he raised over $200,000 by the end of January and hopes to exceed $350,000. Campaign finance reports show that Raney raised $96,000 from Sept. 3 through Jan. 20. He had $89,000 cash on hand as of Jan. 20, while Slocum had $64,000 cash on hand.

There has also been intrigue surrounding one of Raney's neighboring GOP colleagues, Kacal. Slocum originally planned to have his campaign kickoff at a ranch owned by Kacal — raising speculation about his position in the primary — but then changed the venue, citing the weather. Kacal did not respond to a request for comment at the time about whether he was supporting Raney or Slocum.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.