Redistricting, challenges from the right test Texas House GOP incumbents coming off “most conservative session ever”

Many Texas House Republicans have called last years Legislature, which met for a regular session and three special sessions, the most conservative ever. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

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Texas lawmakers passed legislation last year that allowed the permitless carry of handguns, imposed a near-total ban on abortion and cracked down on the alleged teaching of critical race theory in public schools — twice.

Now as Republican members of the Texas House return to the voters in the first primary election since what many of them deemed the most conservative legislative session ever, some are facing challenges from candidates who say they didn’t push far enough to the right and ended the year with unfinished business.

If elected, those challengers, as well as some open-seat candidates, could push the state even further to the right — seeking even more restrictive abortion laws, for example — and end the House’s tradition of bipartisan committee chairs.

The primaries pose the first major electoral test for House Speaker Dade Phelan, who took over the gavel more than a year ago and steered House Republicans through four contentious sessions.

Combined with new district boundaries brought about through redistricting — which made some districts even redder — it has all made for a fluid, uncertain environment for incumbents and open-seat candidates.

The reelection bid of Rep. Kyle Kacal of College Station exemplifies the dynamic. His district has been significantly redrawn; it now encompasses part of Bryan and the outskirts of College Station and then stretches into rural areas to the north, east and south.

“This is a new territory,” Kacal said at a recent forum, acknowledging his district’s significantly different boundaries. “It’s an incredible territory, and one thing you will get tired of is seeing me in town all the time.”

Faced with challengers suggesting he is too moderate, Kacal has stuck to a common theme among incumbents in the hot seat this primary season.

“We just came out of the most conservative session in the Texas Legislature,” he said at the forum. “I voted with it 99% of the time.”

Speaking after Kacal, one of his challengers, Joshua Hamm, ripped the incumbent’s assessment of the session — “You gotta give me a break,” Hamm said angrily — while a second challenger, Ben Bius, piled on. Bius said Kacal is “rated as the No. 1 most liberal state legislator in Texas” and bashed Kacal for not fighting hard enough when House Democrats broke quorum last year over Republicans’ priority elections bill.

“Folks, you don’t negotiate with anarchists,” Bius said.

Phelan’s test

The primaries are the first to happen since Phelan took over as speaker, and his campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars assisting Republican members with primary opposition. While Phelan has ambitions to grow the GOP majority in November, particularly in South Texas, he first has to show he can shepherd incumbents through the political gauntlet that is the state’s action-packed primary season.

“My team and I are carrying out one of the most robust strategies by a Texas House speaker for the 2022 primary election that’s focused on supporting Republican incumbents and growing our majority in the chamber,” Phelan said in a statement, calling his team's efforts this election cycle "unprecedented."

Leadership, which for years became accustomed to battling the anti-establishment Empower Texans in the primary, is confronting its modern iteration, the Defend Texas Liberty PAC. Led by former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, the political action committee has raised $5.4 million since the start of the year, mostly from a handful of hard-right donors, and had doled out nearly as much as of Saturday. Most of the money has gone to Don Huffines, a primary challenger to Gov. Greg Abbott, but the group has also cut checks to a host of other anti-establishment causes, including House primary challengers and groups that have targeted incumbents.

“Defend Texas Liberty PAC exists to further the conservative movement in Texas,” Stickland said in a statement. “We aid the champions who fight for our values, and expose those who work against them.”

Phelan’s No. 1 priority is Rep. Ryan Guillen, the former South Texas Democrat who switched to the GOP in November after the GOP-led redistricting process turned Guillen’s district, already Republican-leaning, into a solidly red one. He faces two primary challengers.

Phelan and his allies are out to set an example that new converts to their party will be welcomed with open arms — and vigorously defended.

“Supporting candidates and voters when they switch parties is critical for the long-term goals of the Republican Party, and we should encourage others to follow their lead,” said Aaron De Leon, vice president of the Associated Republicans of Texas. “It’s simple math: More voters equal more wins and greater success.”

Guillen has been airing a TV ad in which a narrator says Guillen was “already one of us,” citing an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and support for the near-total abortion ban that Abbott signed into law last year. Guillen has the backing of not only Phelan, but also Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former President Donald Trump.

Guillen’s primary challengers are unswayed, attacking him as a phony Republican. One of them, Mike Monreal, calls himself “a Republican by conviction, not by convenience” and notes that Guillen opposed legislation last year to restrict the teaching of so-called critical race theory, among other GOP priorities over the years.

Phelan is also deeply invested in the primary for House District 62, where Rep. Reggie Smith of Sherman is being challenged by Shelley Luther, the salon owner who became famous for refusing to shut down her business under COVID-19 restrictions. Luther, who unsuccessfully ran for state Senate in 2020, has become one of the loudest detractors of state Republican leadership — both Phelan and Abbott — and her defeat would be especially satisfying to them.

Luther has become even more of a lightning rod in her current race, saying Chinese students should be banned from Texas universities and lamenting that, when she was a teacher, her students could not laugh at transgender classmates.

With Phelan’s financial aid, Smith has been on TV in the race since December, and he has used airtime to tell voters Luther is “all talk,” saying in one ad that she “has never voted Republican — ever.” However, election records show Luther has voted Republican at least once before, in the 2020 primary runoff for the party. A more recent Smith ad is more precise, saying she has “never voted in a March Republican primary.”

Luther and her allies are hitting back by invoking two sensitive issues for House leadership: the chamber’s tradition of appointing committee leaders from both parties and its decision last year to lower the penalty for illegal voting in a far-reaching bill that otherwise imposed new voting restrictions on Texans. Defend Texas Liberty PAC is airing a TV ad against Smith that attacks him over both issues, saying Smith “talks conservative, votes liberal.”

The PAC has flooded primaries with mailers bashing incumbents for allowing Democrats to chair committees, especially in light of their quorum break last summer over the GOP’s priority elections bill. The attack is rooted in an amendment to the House rules last year from Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, that proposed banning the minority party from having any chair positions. Only four other Republicans supported the amendment.

Incumbents have dealt with the attacks over committee chairs in various ways. During a forum earlier this month, Rep. Brooks Landgraf of Odessa responded to a question about the issue by telling voters to “look at the results” last year.

“We shoved so many Republican Party principles down those Democratic chairs’ throats that they fled the state,” Landgraf said, referencing the House Democrats’ move to break quorum and travel to Washington in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to block the voting bill. “They choked on it. We got constitutional carry passed, the heartbeat bill passed, election integrity passed, all with those chairs. So when they’re on small committees like that, it doesn’t really make a difference.”

As for the decrease in the illegal voting penalty, it originated in the House and lowered the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor. Most Republicans supported the measure, and it flew under the radar until after Abbott signed the bill. Abbott ordered lawmakers to reinstate the penalty in another special session, but Phelan resisted, saying it was “not the time to re-litigate” the hard-fought elections bill.

As the primary nears, it is hard to find incumbents defending the penalty decrease. Landgraf, for example, wrote on Facebook last month he takes “full responsibility for my vote, and I am going to fix that error when the legislature convenes next.”

“The most conservative session ever”?

Across primaries, incumbent after incumbent is touting their role in the “most conservative session ever” while challengers seek to poke holes in the billing.

Rep. Stephanie Klick’s primary has drawn considerable attention, if only because she has the most challengers: four. The Fort Worth representative chairs the House Public Health Committee, and her opponents are seizing on her failure to advance legislation to restrict what they call “gender modification,” or gender-affirming care for transgender kids.

One of her challengers, David Lowe, raises the issues in a radio ad that calls Klick an “establishment moderate” who “cares more about what The Dallas Morning News wants than what Texans believe.”

“From historic advances in protecting the unborn, expanding Second Amendment freedoms, protecting religious liberty, working to protect girls sports, and increasing taxpayer rights I’m extremely proud of my conservative record in the Texas House,” Klick said in a statement for this story.

The debates regarding transgender kids also loom large in an open seat in North Texas where the four GOP candidates include Jeff Younger, who has waged a court battle over his child’s transition. He has sharply blamed GOP leadership for failing to “protect” the child.

While some of the far-right primary challengers are long shots, they show how Republicans are not unanimous in their assessment of last year’s sessions.

“You can’t sit there with a straight face and tell me we had the most conservative legislative session ever when we got watered-down constitutional carry,” Kacal challenger Joshua Hamm said at the forum. He did not say what was watered down about the permitless carry bill. “You took voter fraud and took it from a felony to a misdemeanor … and you got the heartbeat bill, which still isn’t abolishing abortion, it’s just pushing it off for a couple weeks and then making it a civil [penalty] instead of criminal.”

The push to totally end abortion in Texas has creeped into some other primaries. Klick and Rep. Lacey Hull have been hit with mailers from a group called Abolish Abortion Texas that bash them for failing to support a bill that would have made abortion punishable by the death penalty. The bill never got a committee hearing but became a litmus test for the far right.

New boundaries

Redistricting is fueling a lot of the activity, too. The decennial process gave way to dozens of open seats and added new geography to seats that lured in fresh faces.

Kacal, for example, is reckoning with the addition of Walker County, which is now the biggest slice of the district population by county. That attracted Huntsville businessperson Ben Bius, who is challenging Kacal with the support of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and one of Kacal’s colleagues, retiring Rep. Ben Leman of Anderson.

Redistricting also fielded a crop of primary challengers to Rep. Ernest Bailes of Shepherd. His three opponents include Janis Holt, a former member of the State Republican Executive Committee who had been running for an open seat in East Texas before redistricting. But then redistricting added her native Hardin County to Bailes’ district, and she reoriented her campaign.

Holt said she was “excited” when she saw the new district, knowing she had already worked with activists in the area on the SREC. She is running as more conservative than Bailes and said that she finds the most engaged voters are “livid” about the Democratic committee chairs, especially considering some were part of the quorum break.

New geography is also fueling conflict. In North Texas, the addition of Parker County to Rep. Glenn Rogers’ district gave rise to his lineup of three primary challengers. One of them is Mike Olcott, the co-founder of Parker Conservatives who has loaned himself $300,000.

Redistricting also led to a new, open seat that favors Republicans in Collin County, now known as District 61. Abbott, in his only open-seat endorsement so far, has backed Frederick Frazier, a veteran Dallas police officer who could be the first active cop to serve in the House. Trump, who had appointed Frazier to a law enforcement commission, endorsed him Tuesday.

“This is an essential race for Texas because you’re about to make history and put somebody on that House floor that has an unlimited resource on keeping our public safe,” Frazier said in an interview.

Redistricting also forced some tough decisions by rising stars in the party. The new House District 19 in Central Texas ended up pitting two onetime allies, Justin Berry and Ellen Troxclair, against one another. Berry is an Austin police officer who unsuccessfully ran against Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, in 2020. He was recently indicted in Austin for allegedly using excessive force during the May 2020 racial justice protests, though he denies wrongdoing and calls the charges politically motivated. Troxclair is a former Austin City Council member who was running for state Senate earlier in 2021 before redistricting made that race untenable.

Carrie Isaac is another valued GOP recruit from 2020 who had to find her place on the new map. She settled on the new House District 73 in the Hill Country but could not avert a matchup against former New Braunfels Mayor Barron Casteel. The two are locked in a brawl over their support for veterans, centered on Isaac’s management of a nonprofit that provides assistance for them.

Unique circumstances

There are more unusual circumstances in other GOP primaries for state House.

In House District 14, Rep. John Raney of College Station has drawn a challenger with a high profile locally: John Harvey Slocum, son of the former Texas A&M University football coach RC Slocum. The two are not necessarily arguing over who’s the most conservative but who is best positioned to deliver for a region that is famously loyal to A&M.

“I think we need leadership in Austin,” Slocum said at a recent forum. “I’m running against an incumbent that’s been there for 11 years. There’s been three speakers, and he hasn’t chaired a committee.”

In another primary that does not neatly split along ideological lines, Rep. Valoree Swanson of Spring is confronting three primary challengers, including the incumbent she beat in 2016, Debbie Riddle. In an interview, Riddle acknowledged they are both “conservative, pro-life Republicans” but said the “big difference” is she would provide better constituent services. She promised to open three offices across the district, which she said has a dearth of local elected officials, increasing the need for a responsive state representative.

One Riddle ad drives a more vivid contrast.

“We have enough weak-kneed Republicans in Washington,” a narrator says in a Riddle ad, showing Swanson wedged between two of Trump’s biggest GOP critics in Congress, U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. “Valoree Swanson just isn’t fighting for us.”

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 Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, Feb. 23, 2022: A previous version of this story misstated the Texas House district where Reggie Smith faces Shelley Luther and misstated Luther's profession. They are vying for the Republican nomination for House District 62, not House District 61. Luther is a salon owner, not a hairdresser.