By Scott Wong - 02/22/16 12:07 PM EST
Powerful GOP chairmen in deep-red Texas are fending off primary challengers in an election cycle dominated by the anti-establishment fervor gripping the country.
At least three of the Lone Star State’s seven House committee chairmen — new Ways and Means Chairman Kevin BradyKevin BradyUS wins aerospace subsidies trade case over the EU Republican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Congress must pass Sunset the Tax Code bill before election MORE, Rules Chairman Pete Sessions and Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith — are working to beat back challenges from the right ahead of the March 1 primary.
“I’m sure when you have a chairman title, someone will say that makes you a target, that makes you part of the establishment,” said Flores, a former oil executive who’s squaring off next week with two GOP challengers, former McLennan County Republican Party Chairman Ralph Patterson and local businessman Kaleb Smith.
Sixteen-term GOP Rep. Joe Barton, the dean of the Texas delegation and a former Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, has two challengers of his own, while 85-year-old GOP Rep. Sam JohnsonSam JohnsonRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman IRS publishes guidelines on tax relief for wrongfully incarcerated people Overnight Finance: House votes to rein in IRS; Ryan won't set Puerto Rico timeline MORE, a decorated U.S. fighter pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war, is defending his Dallas-area seat against three rivals. And the man taking on Rep. John Carter has questioned the powerful House appropriator and former Texas judge’s conservative credentials.
Even Texas Rep. Louie GohmertLouie GohmertGOP rep calls Clinton 'mentally impaired' GOP rep: Trump ‘courageous’ for giving Cruz speech GOP bill would block undocumenteds from military service MORE, the GOP gadfly and frequent cable TV guest, has a challenger. Rancher Simon Winston has said Congress has devolved into a circus and Gohmert is “one of the main clowns.”
To be certain, all of the incumbents are favored to win reelection. They are better connected, better funded and have better name ID than their long-shot challengers.
Johnson and Gohmert have both endorsed Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzCruz: Trump hasn't apologized for personal insults Cruz says he forgives Trump for attacks on family Why Cruz flipped on Trump MORE, a fellow Texan, for president — underlying their own anti-establishment credentials.
But Texas is no stranger to upsets. In 2014, Rep. Ralph HallRalph HallGOP fights off primary challengers in deep-red Texas Most diverse Congress in history poised to take power Lawmakers pay tribute to Rep. Ralph Hall MORE, a World War II veteran and the oldest member of Congress at the time, was ousted by a Tea Party-backed challenger, John Ratcliffe, a former federal prosecutor and mayor.
And given the unpredictable political climate — with Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKim Kardashian confirms: 'I stand with Hillary' Cruz: Trump hasn't apologized for personal insults WATCH LIVE: Trump rallies supporters in Virginia MORE leading the GOP’s presidential pack, Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare The disorderly order of presidential succession MORE (R-Ohio) toppled and Majority Leader Eric CantorEric CantorRyan seeks to avoid Boehner fate on omnibus GOPers fear trillion-dollar vote is inevitable Insiders dominate year of the outsider MORE (R-Va.) defeated in a 2014 primary — even incumbents occupying the safest of seats are looking over their shoulder this cycle.
In Virginia, Tea Party favorite Harry Griego, an Air Force veteran, is taking on Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteInternal memo: Refugee program vulnerable to fraud Sen. Thune slams Dems for protecting Internet transition Top GOP chairmen investigating foreign visa program MORE, who’s rarely faced a primary challenge during his 12 terms. And Tea Party insurgent Art Halvorson is seeking a GOP primary rematch against House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who came under fire last year for dating a top airline lobbyist.
Small business owner Matt McCall also is running for a second time against Smith, who was first elected to Congress during the Reagan administration. In 2014, McCall took 34 percent of the vote to Smith’s 60 percent. This time, McCall thinks he can push Smith under 50 percent and force a runoff.
Touting an endorsement from the conservative Texas-based Madison Project, McCall is borrowing the playbook of Tea Party favorite Dave Brat, who made immigration a central theme in his successful campaign against Cantor, then the No. 2 House Republican. Smith briefly served as chairman of the Judiciary panel, which has jurisdiction over immigration issues.
“My race is against a guy who says he’s completely against amnesty. But he hasn’t gotten any results and he’s been there for 30 years,” McCall said of Smith in a phone interview.
“It’s not a fight Lamar’s been picking with the president over the border. It’s a tango. It’s a dance,” the challenger continued. “If we’re really fighting, we should say we’re going to shut down the government, we’re going to impeach the president.”
Smith campaign spokesman Jordan Berry pushed back: “Lamar Smith is the author of the strongest immigration enforcement legislation to become law in recent history, has championed the expansion of E-Verify, and has fought the erosion of our immigration laws by this administration tooth and nail.”
The trillion-dollar omnibus spending package is another issue emerging in House primaries. While Smith opposed the bill, other incumbents like Flores, Brady and Sessions have had to defend their votes for the measure. They often cite a provision ending the ban on crude-oil exports from the U.S. — a huge victory for energy-rich Texas.
Sessions’s two main rivals, military intelligence analyst Paul Brown and consultant Russ Ramsland, both opposed the omnibus, preferring instead to shut down the government, according to a Dallas Morning News editorial endorsing Sessions.
The son of a former FBI director, Sessions has a reputation as the consummate Capitol Hill insider. That could prove problematic as he runs on the same ballot as Cruz, the conservative Texas firebrand who has energized the base by vowing to take down the “Washington cartel.”
As chairman of the House GOP’s campaign arm in 2010, Sessions served as part of BoehnerJohn BoehnerRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare The disorderly order of presidential succession MORE’s leadership team; Boehner later handpicked the Texan to lead the influential Rules Committee. Last fall, Sessions made a short-lived bid for majority whip, the No. 3 job, after Boehner was ousted as Speaker.
Two conservative groups, Citizens United and Tea Party Patriots, have endorsed Ramsland, one of Sessions’s rivals.
These entrenched incumbents don’t appear outwardly worried about their primaries — in 2014, Sessions easily dispatched popular Tea Party activist Katrina Pierson, now a Trump spokeswoman.
But these candidates aren’t taking any chances either. As early voting kicked off last week, Flores and other lawmakers spent part of the week-long Presidents Day recess stumping across their districts. Sessions chatted up voters outside the early voting sites and joined a candidate forum at Southern Methodist University, aides said.
Brady campaign manager Francine Stanfield said her boss has had a full campaign team up and running since last summer in anticipation of a tough primary. During his first few months leading the powerful Ways and Means panel, Brady zeroed in on entitlement and tax reform and trade. But last week, the unassuming chairman could be spotted walking door-to-door in his district, just north of Houston.
“In this unpredictable political climate, anyone who doesn't take every primary challenge seriously is at risk,” Stanfield told The Hill in an email.
“While as chairman of the Ways and Means committee he's laying the groundwork for a new conservative president, Congressman Brady is rightly focused on once again earning the support of his constituents in this race.”
Correction: Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) is facing an independent challenge. An earlier version of this story included incorrect information.