STATE NEWS

Hard-line conservatives lose big in Texas House runoffs

Most of the seven Texas House Republican primary runoffs fell along familiar ideological fault lines in the Republican Party. The more moderate candidates won in most cases.

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If most Texas House Republican primary runoffs split the party into two warring factions, voters on Tuesday clearly chose a side.

Establishment Republicans backed by groups like the Associated Republicans of Texas fell on one side; on the other were Tea Party-aligned candidates funded generously by conservative groups like Empower Texans and the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life.

And the voters on Tuesday firmly backed the center-right candidates — to the tune of well over 10 percent in most cases.

In one of the state’s most closely watched Republican races, the campaign to replace retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, hard-line conservative Matt Beebe fell to the more moderate Steve Allison by about 14 points. Allison had Straus’ endorsement; Beebe, who came at the speaker from the right, failed to unseat him after attempts in 2012 and 2014.

And in a similarly bitter and even more expensive race a couple hundred miles northeast, further-right candidate Thomas McNutt lost to the more moderate Cody Harris by a wide margin.

Harris, an East Texas real estate broker with decades-long ties to his district, said the election results showed that the "House District 8 seat cannot be bought by anyone."

"From the bottom of my heart, I thank you so much," he told about 100 supporters at his Palestine office.

Straus, a contributor to many of the winning candidates and the poster child of what’s sometimes called a dying breed of moderate Texas Republicans, took an early victory lap, sending out a statement congratulating “responsible candidates who will put their communities first” even as some precincts continued to report vote totals.

“The results in these runoffs and in the March primaries clearly demonstrate that Republican voters want constructive and pragmatic leadership for our fast-growing state,” Straus said.

The lean of the lower chamber is especially critical going into 2019 as the Texas House prepares to elect its first new speaker in a decade. That vote is already set to be a contentious one for the majority-Republican House; even the process for electing the next speaker has become an issue in several Republican primaries.

Nearly all of the seats won Tuesday are solidly in the Republican column and not expected to be competitive in November, meaning these candidates are almost guaranteed to win.

This week’s runoff elections recall similar results from the March 6 Republican primaries, when nearly all Empower Texans-backed challengers suffered defeats, and two of Gov. Greg Abbott’s further-right picks — Hollywood Park Mayor Chris Fails and Susanna Dokupil, who was challenging Republican state Rep. Sarah Davis and who had the support of the anti-vaccine movement — fell to more moderate incumbents. Abbott had also endorsed McNutt.

When Straus announced in October that he’d retire — and when state Rep. Byron Cook, chairman of the powerful House State Affairs Committee, followed his lead on that same day — many wondered if the lower chamber would tilt closer the more conservative Texas Senate. But the most conservative faction of the Texas House does not seem likely to grow.

Former state Rep. Stuart Spitzer had just 43 percent of early voting totals in his attempt to retake House District 4 in East Texas. Keith Bell, a more moderate candidate, led early Tuesday evening with 57 percent. Spitzer, who held the seat for one term starting in 2014, is a Tea Party-aligned ex-surgeon who is most famous for authoring an amendment that defunded an HIV prevention program to pay for abstinence-only education.

A race to represent a mostly rural district of seven counties between Austin and Houston saw Ben Leman best Jill Wolfskill, a staunch conservative who has said she’d join the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus if elected. Leman took 57 percent of the vote to Wolfskill’s 43 percent.

The candidates were also competing to complete the term of state Rep. Leighton Schubert, who resigned in February to take a position at a local junior college. Leman also beat Wolfskill in the special election for that seat — but he didn’t win by enough to avoid another runoff for that shorter stint. Both Republicans have said they’d drop out of competition for that special election if they lose the runoff for the full 2019 term.

Reggie Smith, who has the backing of incumbent state Rep. Larry Phillips, won with 71 percent of the vote to Brent Lawson’s 29 percent in a similarly-aligned race in North Texas. Lawson was backed by some of Texas’ most conservative groups, including Texas Right to Life and Texas Values Action.

The only Republican race that clearly bucked that trend came in a comparatively low-profile Dallas County runoff, where Deanna Maria Metzger, who was backed by Empower Texans, defeated Joe Ruzicka. That seat is currently held by a Democrat, freshman state Rep. Victoria Neave.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/05/22/texas-house-primary-runoff-results-thomas-mcnutt-matt-beebe/.

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