The December 11 candidate filing deadline marked the official beginning of a set of Republican Party primary battles that are part of a GOP civil war that has been raging across the Lone Star State for over a decade.
In the House, the GOP’s movement conservative wing has launched an all-out offensive in an attempt to decimate the centrist conservative forces. In the Senate, movement conservatives achieved near-complete control of the GOP Caucus over the past few electoral cycles, and in 2018 are focused on a couple of mop-up operations to eliminate the last remaining centrist conservative pockets of resistance in the upper chamber. By comparison, centrist conservatives in the House and Senate are devoting almost all of their resources this cycle to the defense of their current territory, with only a few credible forays against movement conservative legislators.
Texas House of Representatives
In addition to the biennial goal of expanding their ranks, movement conservatives are especially motivated right now because of the upcoming election of a new speaker for the 2019 legislative session. Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, decided not to seek a record sixth term as speaker. First, movement conservatives want to bolster their strength in hopes of electing a more conservative speaker. Second, the more centrist conservatives they can defeat, the less likely they are to see a repeat of 2009, when a splinter group of Republicans allied with most of the Democrats to elect a centrist conservative speaker — Straus.
There are currently 95 Republicans in the House. A dozen are not seeking re-election (identified in orange in the graph), 27 face contested primaries (red), and 56 are running without opposition (green). The graph displays the locations of 94 of these Republican representatives (the speaker, who by custom does not cast roll-call votes, is excluded) from left to right on the Liberal-Conservative Dimension, as well as provides the 95 percent credible intervals surrounding these point estimates.
Among the least conservative quartile of House Republicans (Sarah Davis of West University Place to Larry Gonzales of Round Rock), 13 are being challenged in the primary, eight are not being challenged and two are not seeking re-election. All together, 57 percent of the least conservative incumbents face contested primaries, a percentage that rises to 62 percent when we exclude the open seats.
In sharp contrast, among the most conservative quartile of House Republicans (Craig Goldman of Fort Worth to Briscoe Cain of Deer Park), five are being challenged in the primary, 16 are not being challenged and two are not seeking re-election. Only 22 percent of the most conservative incumbents face contested primaries, a percentage that rises to 24 percent if we exclude the open seats.
The two middle quartiles have values that are very similar to those of the most conservative quartile. Five (21 percent, 24 percent) and four (17 percent, 20 percent) of the incumbents are being challenged in each quartile respectively, 16 in each are not being challenged, and three and four incumbents are not seeking re-election.
In sum, Republican incumbents in the least conservative quartile are significantly more likely to be facing primary challenges this electoral cycle than are incumbents in the other three quartiles, whose challenge rates are virtually indistinguishable from each other. As an example, every one of the six least conservative Republican incumbents running for re-election is facing a quality challenger; among the six most conservative Republican incumbents running for re-election, only one faces an opponent in the GOP primary.
The 2012 to 2016 period witnessed an exodus of centrist conservative Republicans from the Senate as a host of centrists either resigned to pursue other career opportunities (Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Tommy Williams of The Woodlands), opted to not seek re-election (Kevin Eltife of Tyler, Mike Jackson of Pasadena, Steve Ogden of Bryan), or were defeated in the primary (John Carona of Dallas, Bob Deuell of Greenville). Combined with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s victory over former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the 2014 Republican primary, the Texas Senate was under the near absolute control of the GOP’s movement conservative wing by the start of the 2017 legislative session.
In 2017, Craig Estes of Wichita Falls and Kel Seliger of Amarillo held the two remaining pockets of centrist GOP resistance in the Senate. Both senators face serious primary challenges this cycle from movement conservative candidates.
Rep. Pat Fallon of Frisco, who in 2017 and 2015 had Lib-Con Scores that were significantly more conservative than those of more than half of his fellow House Republicans, is running against Estes. In 2017 and 2015, Estes had Lib-Con Scores that were significantly less conservative than those of more than two-thirds of his fellow Senate Republicans.
Former Midland Mayor Mike Canon and Amarillo restaurateur Victor Leal are attempting to unseat Seliger. Seliger’s 2017 Lib-Con Score was significantly less conservative than that of all but one of his fellow Senate Republicans.
The Texas Senate GOP version of an Ardennes Offensive will take place in Senate District 2. There, centrist conservative Rep. Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale, who in 2017 and 2015 had Lib-Con Scores that were significantly less conservative than those of more than one-half of her fellow House Republicans, is attempting to oust movement conservative Bob Hall of Edgewood, whose 2017 and 2015 Lib-Con Scores were significantly more conservative than those of more than two-thirds of his fellow Senate Republicans.
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