The Texas Republican Party’s factions are appearing in the race for Texas House District 55.
Three Republican candidates are vying to be Bell County’s next lawmaker. There’s incumbent state Rep. Hugh Shine, Open Carry Texas founder CJ Grisham and Calvary Chapel Rev. Brandon Hall.
District 55’s next representative will almost certainly be determined in this primary. No Democrats are running in the November election.
Like many of the roughly two dozen GOP races for the House in which an incumbent is being flanked to the right by challengers, this race could boil down to one question: Who is the truest conservative?
Grisham and Hall say Shine’s voting record in the regular and special sessions of the 85th Legislature runs contrary to the conservative principles he ran on in 2016. Shine, however, disputes their claims, saying he is proud of his record and he has properly represented the district as a conservative.
Voters will decide the answer to that question on March 6.
What’s a conservative?
Each candidate has his own definition for what it means to be “conservative.”
“The definition of conservative, obviously, is different among different groups of people,” Shine said. “To me, a conservative is someone who adheres to the principles of less government, self-reliance, religious freedoms and traditional values. It’s one thing to claim to be a conservative and another to have an actual record of delivering conservative results.”
The three-term legislator pointed to his support of legislation that delivered anti-abortion and pro-Second Amendment policy to the state as well as securing a balanced budget as delivering those conservative results.
Grisham said, “My definition of conservative is someone who will defend smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom. That’s really it. If it doesn’t involve smaller government, if it doesn’t involve maximizing freedom and it doesn’t involve lower taxes it’s not a conservative issue.”
Hall views being conservative as being in favor of lower taxes, less regulation and less government burden on individuals. Currently, he said, there is too much government and regulation standing in the way of people wanting to succeed or better their life or their family’s lives.
Why run to the right?
Republican candidates have to campaign for the true conservative mantle because of a basic reason, Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University, said.
“The problem the Texas Republican Party is going to face is in primary elections voter turnout goes down, but the people who do come out are the ideological pure wing of the party,” Smith explained. “With that, outsider candidates (and) candidates that are running on popular issues with the Republican right are going to do better than they would in the general election.”
Not only does the GOP base turnout to vote, Smith said, they donate money.
“If I want to win at the primary level, I have to pull (to the right),” he said.
Republican challengers will tie the Legislature’s failure to pass conservative measures to the incumbents they are running against, Smith said.
Raking up endorsements
The candidates are stacking up endorsements and using them to shore up their conservative credentials.
Shine has won several endorsements, including the backing of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.
The endorsements from groups — like the political arm of the National Rifle Association, the Texas Farm Bureau and the Texas Alliance for Life — show voters that he legislated as a conservative during last year’s legislative session, Shine said.
Grisham has the support of one of Shine’s fellow House members. Bedford Republican Jonathan Stickland — a member of the self-labeled Freedom Caucus, a group of Republican lawmakers who push for bills important to the party’s conservative voters — endorsed Grisham on Jan. 2.
“Many will criticize me for endorsing against a fellow ‘Republican.’ It’s not typical and most don’t do it,” Stickland said in a Facebook post endorsing the Open Carry Texas founder. “It’s time to kick out RINOs (Republican in Name Only).”
Shine was not concerned with Stickland’s endorsement, pointing to the Bedford Republican’s financial backing of special interest group Empower Texans. The group is funded by oilman Tim Dunn and conservative Michael Quinn Sullivan, according to The Dallas Morning News.
Since 2008, Empower Texans has poured nearly $1.2 million to the 12 members of the Freedom Caucus. Of that money, Stickland has received the most with $402,178.
Grisham also was endorsed by Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, an Austin-based conservative advocacy group founded by Sullivan, the president of Empower Texans.
Hall has the backing of Texans Right to Life, an anti-abortion non-profit group.
Locally, he has the support of Concerned Christian Citizens, a group formed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. A member of Concerned Christian Citizens approached Hall to challenge Shine.
Multiple requests to comment sent to Joe Goodson, the president of Concerned Christian Citizens, went unanswered in the past week.
When Straus told the Temple Daily Telegram on Thursday he plans to support Shine, Hall and Grisham were elated.
Prior to the endorsement, both men, who have never held elected office, were attempting to tie Shine to Straus.
Smith said this tactic is a part of the political playbook outsider candidates use.
“One of the easiest things to do if I’m running a campaign is I find somebody who is not necessarily popular and I try to attack my opponent to that candidate as closely as possible,” the St. Edward’s professor said. “In a primary election, it’s going to be every Republican you want to get out of office is going to be Joe Straus’ best friend.”
Straus’ support of Shine, Grisham said, was the best thing that could happen to his campaign.
Hall was not surprised to learn of the speaker’s endorsement.
“Hugh Shine decided to align himself with Joe Straus … in the last legislative session,” Hall said. “Because of that, many of his votes did not represent the conservative principles of District 55 and Bell County.”
Concerned Christian Citizens distributed a flier called “Hugh Shine’s bad votes.” The group lists eight procedural votes that they say ties Shine to the Democrats and “liberal” Republicans.
It shows Shine’s ranking on three scorecards — two partisan cards from conservative groups Empower Texans and Texas Values and one by a Rice University political science professor.
Hall and Grisham have used Shine’s rankings in these scorecards as why he should be replaced.
Shine described some scorecards as arbitrary and self-serving to some of the groups that develop them.
Scorecards, Smith said, are a way of reducing information costs for voters.
“The costs of becoming an informed voter are very high especially at the state level,” the political science professor explained. “We have busy lives so it’s very difficult to go home at night and then start pouring through policy and voting records. What we do is we use cues.”
Those cues include endorsements from politicians and groups as well as scorecards.
“The problem of course is they usually have a ideological tinge to them. They’re not totally objective so you have to use them at your own peril,” Smith said. “They’re going to pick and choose the bills they use in their scorecard. They’re not going to look at the big picture. They’re going to cherry pick to make somebody look good or bad.”
Money fueling campaigns
Stickland and Empower Texans each contributed $10,000 to Grisham’s campaign, according to finance reports from July 1, 2017, to Dec. 31, 2017, filed to the Texas Ethics Commission.
During that period, Grisham raised $35,682. He currently has $22,939 in cash on hand.
Hall’s campaign finance report has not been filed yet, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. Reports are due Tuesday.
Shine’s coffers, however, dwarf Grisham’s and Hall’s funds. Shine has $144,786 in cash on hand, according to his most recent finance reports covering Jan. 1, 2017 to June 30, 2017.
In that period, the incumbent’s two largest donations came from Temple billionaire businessman Drayton McLane Jr. and Belton City Councilman David K. Leigh; both donated $10,000.