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Despite Well-Funded Challenger, Kay Granger Holds On To Congressional Seat

Kay Granger
Christopher Connelly
Republican U.S. Rep. Kay Granger spoke at her watch party on election night at Blue Mesa Grill in Fort Worth.

Republican Congresswoman Kay Granger declared victory Tuesday night over challenger Chris Putnam in the Texas 12th Congressional District primary. She had nearly 60% of votes at the end of the evening.

Granger has been an institution in North Texas politics for decades, first as Fort Worth’s mayor in the 1990s and then as the first Republican woman to represent Texas in the U.S. House. After more than two decades in office, she’s the top Republican on the House budget-writing committee, which makes her one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress. 

Granger addressed supporters Tuesday night in Fort Worth.

"Thank you so much for your help," she said. "I'll never forget it as long as I live.  Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity to serve you. I never take it for granted, but I love it when you vote for me."

Throughout her career, she’s been a staunch supporter of defense spending. The 12th District includes major defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, which manufactures F-35 fighter jets in Fort Worth, and Bell Helicopter.

It’s precisely that long record that put a target on Granger’s back in the Republican primary this year. Putnam, a former Colleyville City Council member, argued Granger’s record was insufficiently conservative, tagging her as a tax-and-spend creature of Washington who has grown out of touch with her district, which includes a large chunk of Tarrant County, as well as Parker and Wise counties.

At Granger's election night party, Fort Worth City Councilmember Cary Moon said having the congresswoman's clout in Washington has been a major benefit to the city and to the region's economy. Even so, he says tough primary challenges like this are good for the political system and make sure that elected officials remain accountable to their constituents.

"It's good for democracy, it's good for our republic to have contested elections," Moon says. "I do know Chris Putnam and he's a good gentleman, a good business owner. He was a good councilmember in Colleyville and he put on a good race against a very strong incumbent."

The challenge came as questions swirled about the future viability of the Panther Island project, a major flood-control effort in Fort Worth. Granger was pivotal in securing funding for the project, which is helmed by her son, JD Granger. Republicans have grumbled for years that the project has always been more about economic development than flood control.

Federal funding for the Panther Island project, which would create an urban lake and island north of downtown Fort Worth by digging a channel between two branches of the Trinity River, has slowed to a trickle, pending a feasibility study. Granger and other backers of the project, which has been underway for more than a decade, say the project has already been studied to death.

Granger’s imprimatur on Panther Island had been a major line of attack for Putnam and groups that supported him.

The race drew millions of dollars in campaign donations andoutside spending. Putnam raised more than $700,000 for the election. His own campaign’s spending was swamped by outside expenditures, including $1.1 million from the anti-tax Club for Growth and another $1.1 million coming from the allied Protect Freedom PAC.

The superPACs ran ads targeting Granger for supporting “out-of-control deficit-spending, backroom bloated budget deals, and debt limit increases” and slamming her involvement in the Panther Island project.

Another round of ads targeted her record on abortion. Granger’s position on abortion has shifted over her time in Congress, initially supporting abortion rights, and opposing them recently. She gained an endorsement from the National Right to Life, an anti-abortion group.

That was expected, if frustrating, to Tarrant County Glenn Whitley, who supported Granger.

"It’s those folks who are basically trying to buy elections. And so we knew it was going to be a tough battle, and Kay just hung in there and campaigned like I have never seen her campaign before," Whitley said.

Granger has raised more than $2 million to defend her seat, and outside groups have spent big to support her. Most of the pro-Granger outside spending came from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a superPAC that backs House Republicans, as well as the Winning for Women Action Fund and the National Association of Realtors.

The Congressional Leadership Fund spent more than $1.2 million defending Granger and attacking Putnam, including in TV ads that tout Granger’s endorsement by President Donald Trump, which she landed this year despite initially opposing Trump’s nomination during the 2016 presidential primary. 

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.