After a string of Texas House primary seasons featuring broad intraparty combat, the 2020 one is coming down to three runoffs Tuesday where hardline conservatives are out for a much-needed breakthrough.
A pair of incumbents, Reps. Dan Flynn of Canton and J.D. Sheffield of Gatesville, face challenges from their right, while Jon Francis and Glenn Rogers are battling to replace retiring Rep. Mike Lang, R-Granbury. Each runoff is playing out in safely red territory and pits against one another familiar intraparty factions that have been brawling for several primary cycles now.
Except this cycle, the internecine combat has been more muted than usual, and the three runoffs Tuesday give each wing a chance to have the final say before the party fully turns its attention to a challenging November election.
“Voters in these communities have a choice between grassroots Republicans or the political elite,” Kimberlyn Schwartz, a spokesperson for Texas Right to Life, said in a written statement. The anti-abortion group has endorsed Flynn challenger Bryan Slaton, Sheffield rival Shelby Slawson and Francis. Those candidates, Schwartz added, "will not betray Pro-Life voters."
The delayed runoff — which was postponed from late May due to the coronavirus — has been a relief to at least Sheffield, who finished second in his three-way March primary. He said in an interview that he has “come a long way since” then, citing a “new team, new energy, new focus, new drive.”
But perhaps nothing has re-energized Flynn, Sheffield and Rogers like the release last month of a podcast outtake showing two staffers from the hard-line conservative group Empower Texans joking about Gov. Greg Abbott's disability and criticizing him with profane language. While the two challengers and Francis condemned the comments the same day they came out, Flynn, Sheffield and Rogers have all moved aggressively to make the audio a liability for their opposition and highlight their real — or perceived — ties to Empower Texans.
"Special interest groups have played an outsized role in the Republican primary, often electing candidates who don't represent their district," said Jamie McWright, the president of the Associated Republicans of Texas, which is backing Flynn, Sheffield and Rogers. "As we have seen recently, these groups do so with vitriolic language and outright lies."
Francis is an especially enticing target for the anti-Empower Texans forces. He is the only candidate across the three runoffs that the group has formally endorsed, and he is the son-in-law of Farris Wilks, one of Empower Texans' top allied donors. Farris Wilks and his wife, JoAnn, contributed $1.1 million out of the $1.4 million total that Francis had raised as of July 4.
After backing Flynn and Sheffield in the primary, Abbott endorsed Rogers, a Palo Pinto County rancher and veterinarian, nine days after the Empower Texans outtake surfaced last month. And the governor's campaign has since put significant money behind the endorsement, making $83,000 in in-kind contributions to Rogers' campaign, including for a TV ad buy featuring Abbott pitching Rogers direct-to-camera.
Abbott is playing opposite of a usual ally, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, whose 2016 presidential campaign was aided by a network of Wilks-funded super PACs that Francis helped run. Cruz endorsed Francis in the primary and is starring in a runoff TV ad for him, promising Francis will “stand up to the swamp in Austin.” Cruz is set to hold a get-out-the-vote Sunday for Francis in Granbury.
In a TV ad, Rogers is portraying Francis as both anti-Abbott and anti-Trump. The spot plays the least flattering parts of the Empower Texans staffer comments and brings up criticism of Trump that Francis made a few days after Cruz dropped out of the bitter 2016 primary. Francis has said he went on to support and vote for Trump in the general election and will do so again this time.
Francis' TV spots, meanwhile, call Rogers “just too liberal,” pointing to his positions on taxpayer-funded lobbying, gun rights and abortion.
Sheffield is arguably the underdog after finishing behind Slawson in the primary, scoring 30% of the vote to her 46%. Sheffield has since picked up the endorsement of the third-place primary finisher — Cody Johnson, a self-funding businessman who ran as a Trump-like outsider — and has sharpened his attacks on Slawson.
“The big difference between us is I represent the rural folks, mainstream conservatives, and she's backed by the dark-money, urban … backers,” Sheffield said. “This really is a case of a small-town family practice doctor against a lawyer.”
Slawson countered in an interview that the choice is between a “bold, energetic, authentic conservative” and the “most liberal Republican in the Texas House.”
Asked for examples of Slawson's urban supporters, Sheffield pointed to sources including Texas Right to Life, which is based in Houston. Its PAC sent out a faux newspaper in the district last month with a front-page headline calling Sheffield “Planned Parenthood's Republican Champion.”
On TV, Sheffield is making a more explicit link between Slawson and Empower Texans, airing a commercial that says her donors “funded attacks on Abbott calling him ‘evil' and making fun of his wheelchair.” He and his campaign have pointed out that one of Slawson's biggest backers is state Sen. Pat Fallon of Prosper, who has a history of support from Empower Texans.
Slawson has said Sheffield is grasping for straws by linking her to Empower Texans, reiterating in an email that she quickly denounced the staffers' comments and has not received any endorsement or donations from the group. I “have never even met or talked with them,” she added.
“Frankly, our folks are wise to the incumbent's desperate attempt to invoke Empower Texans into this race, they're tired of his worn-out boogeyman approach, and they're just not falling for it,” Slawson said. “The only candidate seeking to involve ET has been the incumbent himself.”
Flynn, who is running for a 10th term in the lower chamber, finished first in the three-way March primary, with businessman Bryan Slaton coming in second by 9 percentage points. Slaton has run for the seat twice already, nearly ousting the incumbent in 2018.
Slaton has said he champions various hardline conservative priorities that reflect the values of the district, such as property tax relief and various Second Amendment measures. Flynn, Slaton has argued on the campaign trail, is a “do-nothing” Republican who has not represented the district while in office.
Flynn has defended his record on anti-abortion and Second Amendment measures, at times saying Slaton is simply lying about his record on such issues. He has also criticized Slaton's major financial ties to Wilks and Tim Dunn, another megadonor to Empower Texans, saying in a statement that the race "has been from the beginning a decision about whether this district is for sale to a West Texas Billionaire."
Like Rogers and Sheffiled, Flynn has capitalized on the Empower Texans anti-Abbott audio, running ads in the final weeks of the race that link Slaton to the drama.
“They say money talks, and when it does, Bryan Slaton listens,” a video from Flynn's campaign says. “Slaton's taken over a $150,000 from West Texas oil billionaires — the same West Texas billionaires funding vile attacks on Gov. Abbott.”
(The ad refers to $75,000 donations that Slaton got from each the Wilkses and Dunn in the primary. Dunn has since contributed another $150,000.)
Slaton, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, said after the Empower Texans audio surfaced that he condemned the staffers' remarks “100%.” He went on to point at Flynn for publicly defending House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican who decided to not seek reelection after being embroiled in a scandal largely of his own making.
“You won't find Mr. Flynn publicly condemn the statements by those who associate with him," Slaton said in a post on Facebook. “But I promise you will always know where I stand."