in Houston, Texas

Tea Party activists aim to ‘clean our own house’ in 2012 Congressional primaries

Tuesday, Oct 11, 2011, 06:27AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
U.S. Capitol

Offered up the twin fat pitches of Republican-drawn legislative districts and an increasingly unpopular Democratic president, conservative activists in Texas are, instead, sitting on a curve.

Very quietly and very early, networks of Tea Party affiliates are working to make the March 6, 2012, primary a referendum on the performance of Republican incumbents in Congress, a delegation generally thought to be among the most conservative in the country.

Recent history, conventional wisdom and big party money suggest long odds for real change. All three factors, however, ignore the genuine and growing dissatisfaction Americans feel for the political process, irrespective of party, Alice Linahan, a national and state Tea Party organizer and political blogger from Argyle, south of Denton, says.

Alice LinahanAlice Linahan
“What you aren’t hearing right now are the people I meet every day who want to know how the people they elected did in the last cycle, to hold them accountable for the way they voted,” Linahan says. “We think the primaries ought to be the time when we clean our own house.”

Exactly where the cleaning will begin and how much overall change the 2012 primaries will bring it is much too early for Linahan and others to say. The first day of filing to have your name placed on the Congressional ballot isn’t until Nov. 12 and the last is Dec. 12.

The Congressional redistricting map itself is being challenged in federal court on the grounds that it discriminates against minorities, one of hundreds of Voting Rights Act challenges to redistricting across the country.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio issued an order Sept. 29 preventing the state from putting the maps in place until he and two other federal judges complete their review.

Until the case is decided, no Democrat has come forward to run in District 25, since 1994 the liberal Central Texas redoubt of Rep. Lloyd Doggett reconfigured to favor Republicans.

Doggett announced in June that he would run for a seat in a newly created District 35 configured to favor Democrats, which includes parts of Travis County and heavily Hispanic Bexar County. San Antonio Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro, whose identical twin, Julian Castro, is the mayor of San Antonio, said he intended to take on the long-time congressman, pending a final decision on the map.

“The map as passed by the Legislature is illegal, and my hope is it will be changed drastically,” Andy Brown, chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party, says. “The uncertainty puts every candidate who might want to run at a disadvantage.”

This uncertainty has not been shared by Republicans, eight of whom asked that their names be placed on a ballot for a straw poll Sept. 25 in Lago Vista that drew more than 400 voters.

Michael Williams, the former chairman of the State Railroad Commission, took 27.2 percent of the straw vote. Dave Garrison, a retired USAA executive who has never run for public office, lost to Williams by a single vote.

The strengths of a newcomer’s showing against a name Republican politician, however early, was not lost on Rosemary Edwards, chairman of the Travis County Republican Party.

“Right now, I think you are going to see a lot of scrutinizing of individual candidates for their conservative credentials,” Edwards says. “I think we’re at a time at every level where you are going to see very fluid situations.”

There are already four Republicans who have announced their intention to run for the seat Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas City, is giving up in coastal District 14, which includes Galveston.

Fluidity in a district with an open seat is one thing. Ralph Hall, R- Rockwall, Joe Barton, R-Ennis, Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, and Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, with more than 85 years of combined service in Congress, already have Republican primary opponents.

Michael Burgess, a Republican from Flower Mound in office since 2003, is so far facing two Republicans and an independent.

And Blake Farenthold, a former conservative talk radio show host from Corpus Christi, who deposed longtime Democratic Congressman Solomon Ortiz by the slenderest of margins two years ago, will be tested by at least one Republican in 2012. One of them might be Debra Medina, who has not formally announced, but who scored with Tea Party voters when she challenged Gov. Rick Perry in 2010.

Of the 535 members of Congress, the American Conservative Union in its last annual study issued 75 scores of 100 for what it considers a perfect conservative voting record. Thirteen of those were Texas representatives, including Brady and Thornberry. Hall, Barton and Burgess got scores of 96.

But in her 20 years of conservative activism in East Texas, JoAnn Fleming, the chairman of the Tea Party’s advisory committee to the Legislature in the last session and the executive director of Grassroots America in Smith County, has seen a change in how voters are judging conservatism.

The public has been buffeted as much by uncontrolled government spending in the Republican administration of George W. Bush as they have by the current Democratic leadership, Fleming says.

JoAnn FlemingJoAnn Fleming
While she says it is too early for the Tea Party to come out for or against specific candidates, Fleming says Barton’s tireless efforts to aid the oil and gas industry and the work of Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, to groom candidates through the Republican Congressional Committee, are just two examples of politicians being beholden to a system rather than to voters.

“I think incumbents ought to realize that voters are looking at their performance. Do they use their office to pick winners and losers,” she says. “We can’t afford these people who like big government. You aren’t a Constitutional conservative just because you have an 'R' behind your name.”

The ground-level lift for 2012 came not from presidential overreach or congressional arrogance but from the hubris displayed by Republican state representatives who supported Joe Straus for speaker of the House at the start of the past legislative session, Linahan says.

Constituents were made to feel promises the politicians made to one another were more important than their pleas to elect a more conservative speaker, she says.

“People are starting to connect the dots from the local races on up,” Linahan says. “I think there is this perception of all of these rock hard conservatives, and I don’t think we have true conservatives in certain races.”

Linahan says it might be another month or more before Tea Party organizers identify who those candidates lacking in conservative credentials are and what they plan to do about it.

Identifying the candidates is one thing. Marshaling the broad support and the funding to do something about it is another, Chris Britton, a prominent consultant to Republicans in Texas, says.

Britton thinks the open seats in districts 14 and 25 which, unless the map is redrawn, will almost certainly go to Republicans and will probably say more about the voters in those districts than the current bent of conservatism in Texas.

Medina’s presence in a District 27 race, although not at all guaranteed, will change the Republican dialogue but based on the 2010 election returns is unlikely to shift the Democratic base that kept Ortiz in office for more than 30 years.

“No one doubts that the Tea Party has a core group of committed individuals - in fact most of these congressional districts will have an active Tea Party - but can they come together to engage constructively, mount a campaign and win an election. I don’t know that we’ll be seeing that.”

A look at the recent past shows how difficult it is for a Republican to upend an incumbent Republican in Texas. Long before his revival as a Tea Party godfather, three Republicans challenged Ron Paul in the 2010 primary. Paul got more than 80 percent of the vote without a single challenger getting as much as 10 percent.

After winning a primary runoff in 2002, Burgess’ primary numbers climbed to 75 percent, dropped to 60 percent and went back up to 67 percent in 2010. Brady took 79 percent of the primary vote that same year. Thornberry’s last primary was in 2000, Barton’s in 1998.

Hall drew four Republicans in the 2008 primary and finished with 73 percent of the vote. Two years later, with five challengers he moved on with 57 percent.

Each of these incumbents is hundreds of thousands of dollars in fundraising ahead of the challengers so far, margins that will likely swell as the March primary gets closer. From the totals kept by Open Secrets several of the opponents have so far reported raising nothing at all.

From these many races, Britton suggested the Tea Party focus its efforts with care. “You have to be wise about the battles you pick,” he says. “Because every time you fail it’s a blot on your effectiveness. You can potentially undercut everything you’re doing.”

Britton’s is precisely the agnostic consultant’s view of the political process Linahan says she and other activists are determined to wipe away.

“It’s this narrative of huge donors with deep pockets, consultants, polls, ads and special interests, the political establishment,” she says. “For it to change the people are going to have to take control of the narrative and fix it themselves. And the way to do that is for Republicans to hold Republicans accountable.”
 
***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of the Capitol by flickr user wallyg, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Comments
TexasTea
Tuesday, 10/11/2011 - 10:09AM

I would just add that we need to clean our own STATE House (and Senate) as well. Due to redistricting, all Senators must run for re-election. In addition, a number of "open" House seats have been created, and that combined with a high number of retirements and reps running for other offices means plenty of opportunities to send more conservatives to the state legislature as reinforcements for many House freshmen we sent to Austin in 2010.

Rudy Gonzales
Tuesday, 10/11/2011 - 10:07PM

The Terrifying Errant Activist(TEA) party is threatening every incumbent Republican and Democrat representative and Senator in every Legislation and even those in Washington! Calling all normal thinking Americans to come to the meetings and help vote out the extremist! These Terroristic Economic Antagonist(TEA) party members are hell-bent to place their own narrow-minded candidates into office the set their agenda in motion! Many have already gained office locally! America does not need radicalism or extremist in office!

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