Weak Tea? Primary Challengers to Texas Republicans Bringing The Heat

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As I noted in a post on Pete Session's lackluster NRCC efforts last Friday, many of our incumbent Texas Republican Congressmen are facing primary challengers this cycle, from Tea Party folks. Let's take some time to get to know the folks who are doing their best to make Congress even less functional, and think about what this means for the Republican party.

Ralph Hall vs. Jerry Ray (Tea) Hall, TX-4
Hall faces tea party challenger Jerry Ray Hall (no relation to Ralph or Mick Jagger's ex), who submitted his ballot application with the word “Tea” after his middle name. Challenger-Hall also has been passing around a photo of himself with Rep. John Culberson as an implied–and erroneous–endorsement. That link is also entertaining because “Jerry Ray (Tea) Hall” mixes it up in the comments… With himself.

Also interesting about this race: Congressman-Hall is the oldest member of the House, at 86 years. He would take over the Science Committee should the Republicans regain control of the lower chamber. Notably, would-be Science Chair Hall is actually older than the Big Bang Theory, the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, penicillin, the material nylon, radiocarbon dating, treatment for leukemia, the radio transistor, and the polio vaccine. I'm not trying to imply anything… Well, really, I'm just saying, the dude is too old to be in charge of the Science Committee.

Michael McCaul vs. Joe Petronis, TX-10
Michael “#7 Water Waster in Austin” McCaul is facing a primary challenge from the self-proclaimed “RINO Hunter” Joe Petronis. In fact, he has an entire page on his website dedicated to his RINO Hunting. Click on the link. You need a giggle.

This is interesting, because unlike some of the districts mentioned here (the 4th, 11th) which are mind-numbingly Republican, the 10th (and Sessions' 32nd) have the potential to flip. Unfortunately, the highly-anticipated challenger to McCaul, Jack McDonald, did not file for the race, leaving 2006 challenger Ted Ankrum to pick up the slack. It will be interesting to see, however, what effect the primary challenge has on a Republican base that doesn't have too much to praise in the lackluster McCaul's performance in D.C. After all, McCaul is clearly better at wasting water at home than he is fighting for jobs or hewing to “conservative principles” in D.C.

Mike Conaway vs. Chris Younts, TX-11
Conaway, from Midland, is a big-time Bush crony, working for Bush's various failed business ventures until being appointed by then-governor Bush to the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy. He later had the luxury to run for a district again redrawn by DeLay to include Midland and Odessa. TX-11 is widely considered to be one of the most Republican, with a PVI of R+28. (Only the 13th, much of the Panhandle held by Mac Thornberry, is more Republican, at R+29.)

Conaway is being challenged by Chris Younts, an insurance salesman from San Angelo. Of his candidacy, Younts stated, “Contrary to opinions on both sides, the Tea Party movement was never intended to play the role of an infatuated, doting cheerleader of all players with an 'R' on their jersey, regardless of past indiscretions.”

Kenny Marchant vs. Frank Roszell, TX-24
Marchant will face a primary challenge for the district he basically drew for himself during the 2003 Congressional gerrymander, during which time he was a member of the Texas House. He is squaring off against Roszell, a developer and tea party supporter from Grapevine. Roszell may win the “best quote on a campaign website” contest, which is pretty stiff amongst the Tea Partiers: “No one will jerk my chain but my wife.” Unclear how his views on chain-jerking relate to partisan line-drawing.

Pete Sessions vs. David Smith, TX-32
As I noted last Friday, the head of the entire NRCC is facing a primary challenger in the form of David Smith, a corporate financial analyst and tea party activist determined to rid the Republicans of the D-minus Sessions.

Smith expects to receive significant grassroots support from the Tea Party denizens, telling TPM “I anticipate that those will be the most active supporters of my campaign, those are going to be the people who will go out for my campaign and wear out shoes, and make phone calls to people in the district.”

This ought to be interesting. While pundits and political “soothsayers” are already predicting death to Democratic victories this cycle, there's clearly a fomenting Tea Party movement on the Right that sets the stage for post-primary strife, and may enable third party or independent candidates to step up to the plate and capitalize on this discontent.

Let's also not count out the role of Debra Medina in this, whose gubernatorial campaign may draw out Republican primary voters who seek to support the “Tea Party” challengers in their local Congressional primaries. However, the national Republicans seem largely unwilling to address the growing frustration amongst Tea Party activists, suggesting that everyone will mend fences after the primary and work for the status-quo Republican incumbents that are likely to survive the vast, vast majority of their primary challenges.

A New York Times piece on the recent Republican retreat to their favorite foreign nation of Hawaii illustrates this. Michael Steele, RNC chairman, stated:

“If a Republican incumbent or a Republican candidate is running and a Tea Party candidate is in the race and the Republican wins, my expectation is that the Tea Party guy is going to support the Republican. … Because we would support the Tea Party guys.”

Ok, let me get this straight: RNC Chair Michael Steele says that his party would support Tea Party activists should they win a primary. However, that's the exact opposite of what happened in NY-23, where moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava endorsed Democrat Bill Owens over certified nutjob Doug Owens after Tea Party folks pushed Scozzafava out of the race for being insufficiently ideologically pure. The comments of the challengers above suggest that this might not be so true, and that Tea Party activists may not let themselves be taken for granted by the Republican Party.

This should also be a huuuuge warning sign to moderate Republicans and independents, that the RNC establishment says publicly that they're willing to get on board with Tea Party extremists should they win the primary.

However, former Texas Congressmember and one-man Dick Armey seems to see the handwriting on the wall:

“This is not a situation where the grass-roots activists are saying, 'What can we do to make ourselves attractive to the Republicans?'” he said. “It is 'What can we do to help the Republicans understand what they must do to be attractive to us.'”

Armey admits it: the Tea Party is the new activist base of conservative politics. To win over their support and enthusiasm in November, Republican candidates may have to swing even harder to the right to pacify the folks who are currently holding the megaphone in the Republican party. What this will do to moderate and mainstream voters remains to be seen, but thanks to the Tea Party this may shape up to be a more intriguing election season than we expect.  


About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Central Texas. She is also a fan of UCONN women's basketball and breakfast tacos.


  1. CD-24
    Kind of crappy that Dallas or Tarrant Counties didn't pony up a Democrat against Marchant this go around. Denton County fielded the candidate in '04 and '06 (Gary Page both times, and he even ran in '02 as a Green), and Dallas County in '08 (Tom Love). Each time has been an increasing Democratic vote: 34.2%, 37%, and 41.14% respectively. So if our larger counties to the south are going to ignore this seat in the future, then we will definitely look to fill it in '12 with someone qualified from Denton County.

  2. Missed Stephen Schoppe in TX-21
    You left off the Republican Challenger to Lamar Smith, Stephen Schoppe. He's a business owner from Cedar Park and is working the Tea Party circuit. My favorite quote from him so far is that he called Lamar Smith a “socialist”.

    Lainey Melnick

    Candidate for US Congress

    Texas 21st District



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