Back in March, Dallas Republicans elected Mark Montgomery to lead their county party. He took office in June, and according to its Facebook page, the party was excited to have the 67-year-old in charge. Montgomery took the party’s helm from Wade Emmert in an election that the Dallas Morning News called a “fluke” in which the “unknown” tea party activist won the election despite claiming that he spent less than $30 on his campaign.
This week, though, the paper announced that Montgomery would be resigning “with deep regret,” owing to “some recent changes in [his] personal life.” Those changes weren’t specified, so it’s unclear if they have anything to do with the fact that in the two months since Montgomery took office, the county party’s coffers have dropped from a heathy $30,000 to a shocking $180.
It’s similarly unclear what happened to the missing $29,820—at the moment, nobody has reported seeing Montgomery behind the wheel of a new F-150 or anything, but as the Dallas Morning News reports, Montgomery had a hard time raising money for the party, despite Emmert’s attempt to help him. But what’s not unclear is that this is a bad look for a Texas GOP whose statewide dominance accompanies serious questions about the people the party elects.
Montgomery won office in an election where most voters were focused on the race between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump—a primary election that drove a record number of Texans to the polls, but also involved a number of down-ballot races that received little to no coverage. It was hard not to form an opinion of Trump or Cruz in March, but getting the information necessary to determine if Montgomery was the best man for the job in Dallas County was a more difficult task.
It’s similar to what played out in Austin when the Travis County GOP made the surprising move of electing conspiracy theorist Robert Morrow (whose latest mass email blast to media last week declared “Notorious Germ phobe [sic] Donald Trump had 13 year old Jane Doe wear gloves for hand job”) to lead the party.
Morrow is an oddball, but he knows it. He wore a jester’s cap to his first official party meeting, and his history of sending out conspiratorially minded emails to seemingly everyone in Texas media made it easy for established Republican leaders to identify that, will of the voters or no, they wanted Morrow’s authority to be limited when he actually took office. (For his part, Morrow told the Texas Tribune to “tell them they can go f— themselves” in response.)
Travis County Republicans were able to limit Morrow’s power before he took office. The responsibilities of the county chair were largely moved to the newly created role of executive vice chair, and a steering committee was created to ensure that Morrow would be unable to take action without their approval. But perhaps more significant—at least in light of what happened to the bank account of the Dallas County GOP—was the formation of the Friends of the Travis County Republican Party, which was given full control over the party’s finances, email, and voter data.
At the time that Montgomery was elected, observers noted that his win was a surprise, but not quite in the same way that Morrow’s was. Morning News columnist Gromer Jeffers Jr. wrote that though Montgomery’s victory over Emmert was unexpected, it “should not be classified as a nut case winning office,” and that “Montgomery, a tea party activist, could end up being a terrific leader. We’ll have to see.”
“Nut case” or no, the party Montgomery was elected to lead is broke—at least temporarily—and where the money went is anybody’s guess. The Dallas County GOP will be determining its new chair later this month, and though it’s entirely possible that supporters will refill the coffers, the fear that uninformed voters will boost an unknown candidate into a position of power has to give them pause. Meanwhile, the steps taken by the Travis County Republicans, though wise for their bank account, reflect an “elite rule” mentality that’s unlikely to serve the party of Cruz and Trump well in the long term.
All of which raises the question: should Texas Republicans be worried about the fact that two of the five largest counties in the state elected what many consider to be unqualified leaders?
In Harris County, a similarly unknown candidate proved disruptive—but not disruptive enough to win. Incumbent GOP County Chair Paul Simpson found his path to victory during the general election blocked by two newcomers who didn’t raise any money on their way to limiting him to a mere 39 percent of the vote in the three-way primary. Rick Ramos, Tex Christopher, and Simpson all split the vote in a way that suggested that what happened in Dallas and Austin wasn’t too far off from going down in Houston. The Texas Republican politics website TexasGOPVote.com described Ramos—who actually pulled several thousand more votes than Simpson in the general election, though not enough to win the race without a runoff—as “a virtual no-show prior to, during and after the primary election held on March 1st.”
After Simpson found himself in a runoff with Ramos, the Houston Chronicle reported that “party activists and deep-pocketed donors” pitched in to ensure that runoff voters were informed about the differences between the two. Ramos found himself supported by Steve Hotze, Gary Polland and Terry Lowry, a trio whose primary issues seem to be curbing the spread of gay rights and “the homosexual manifesto” that wants “to make Houston another San Francisco,” and whose primary beef with Simpson seemed to be a perceived lack of activity on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.
Simpson won that race with 68 percent of the vote, but only 38,000 people cast ballots.
Still, it’s not all weirdness, “nut cases,” and people with a remarkable ability to turn $30,000 into $180 in two months’ time in the Texas GOP’s county offices. Tarrant County also had a leadership change this year, with former chair Jennifer Hall opting not to seek re-election, and the campaign to replace her pitted longtime activist David Wylie against former Flower Mound mayor Tim O’Hare. Wylie ran on his proven ability to recruit candidates for office in his role with the Tarrant County Executive Committee, while O’Hare ran on his record as mayor. Compared to their counterparts in Houston, Austin, and Dallas, it was downright quaint.
All of this ultimately suggests that there are some risks to the single-party rule that Republicans have enjoyed in Texas for a generation. While oddball candidates can run for office in any party, the power that the GOP wields in Texas raises the stakes for each of these elections—and the sheer number of Republican voters in the state means that there are going to be more uninformed voters if only because there are more voters total. We’ll see if 2016 was a blip or a trend, but either way, the news out of Dallas shouldn’t make anybody feel great right now.
(A previous version of this article cited the vote-by-mail numbers in the Harris County runoff, rather than the full totals. We’ve updated to correct the error.)