During the debate over the bathroom bill last year, social conservative Republicans taunted the business conservative Republicans with the phrase: “Dollars over daughters.” But in the Republican primaries and runoffs this spring, the business conservatives trounced the tea party crowd and the leadership of Empower Texans, one of the stalwart groups heading the social conservatives. On Tuesday, all but one of the Republican state House runoff candidates with an Empower Texans endorsement lost. In the primary, Empower endorsed candidates challenging sixteen business-oriented state House incumbents and only saw the defeat of two—both of whom had suffered self-inflicted wounds.
As a reminder, the bathroom bill was intended to limit access to gender-specific public bathrooms in schools and government buildings to the birth gender of an individual. Allegedly, the legislation was intended to protect women and girls from sexual predators, but it was widely perceived as legislation to discriminate against transgender people with a broad insult to the entire gay rights community. Businesses across Texas came out against the bill because it would make it difficult to lure companies to move to the state, would impede employee recruitment of younger workers, and could threaten the state’s ability to host conventions and sporting events.
The legislation was defeated in the House in a special legislative session called by Governor Greg Abbott. The governor has been criticized for not calling a special session to tap the state’s financial reserves—commonly known as the rainy day fund—to help local governments finance Hurricane Harvey recovery. Retiring state Representative Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, has asked Abbott to call a special session in August to address school safety in the wake of the shooting at Santa Fe High School that left ten dead.
Retiring House Speaker Joe Straus worked to counter Empower Texans and tea party Republicans by raising money for the Associated Republicans of Texas, a business-oriented political committee that was formed in the 1970s with the intent of turning the Legislature Republican. Straus warmly greeted the runoff victories of the candidates he supported.
“I want to congratulate the candidates who won their runoffs tonight and will now head to the general election in November. They have worked hard and sacrificed much to earn these victories. Once again, Republican primary voters have shown overwhelming support for responsible candidates who will put their communities first and take a serious approach to the state’s challenges. 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 had put $1 million of his campaign funds into the effort, prompting criticism from Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s political consultant Allen Blakemore of Houston, who accused Straus of laundering his money through other political committees “so his involvement wouldn’t hurt the candidates he was supporting.” He said Patrick was “up front” in donating $591,000 to five state Senate Republicans he was supporting. “In the end no one was fooled. Primary voters know that ‘responsible Republican’ is just a code word for ‘liberal Republican’ and the smoke screen didn’t work,” Blakemore said.
Empower Texans president Michael Quinn Sullivan tried to put a positive spin on Tuesday’s results, noting in particular that two incumbent House members—Democrat Rene Oliveira of Brownsville and Republican Scott Cosper of Killeen—had lost their re-election bids. Cosper had Straus’s backing, but his opponent Dr. Brad Buckley won without the support of Empower Texans. Sullivan also noted that all members of the House Freedom Caucus had won their Republican nominations, “every member of the Freedom Caucus returns in 2019 and they’re coming with friends.” That ignores the fact at least one member of the caucus—Matt Rinaldi of Irving—is on the Democratic Party list of incumbents who can be defeated this fall. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton received more than 51 percent of the vote in Rinaldi’s district in 2016.
Correction: Due to a page break in my printout, I overlooked an Empower Texans victory by Deanna Metzger in House District 107 in Dallas. I regret the error.