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GOP fights off primary challengers in deep-red Texas

GOP fights off primary challengers in deep-red Texas
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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 Patrick BradyOn The Money: Biden, Democratic leaders push for lame-duck coronavirus deal | Business groups shudder at Sanders as Labor secretary | Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year Top Democrat: Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year Momentum grows for bipartisan retirement bill in divided Congress MORE, Rules Chairman Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsWhy Trump's defeat is bittersweet for Texas Democrats Bottom line Texas Democrat Colin Allred beats back GOP challenger MORE and Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithIn partisan slugfest, can Chip Roy overcome Trump troubles? OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Cheney asks DOJ to probe environmental groups | Kudlow: 'No sector worse hurt than energy' during pandemic | Trump pledges 'no politics' in Pebble Mine review Cheney asks DOJ to probe environmental groups  MORE — are working to beat back challenges from the right ahead of the March 1 primary.

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So is Texas Rep. Bill FloresWilliam (Bill) Hose FloresThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks Hillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones House approves measure condemning QAnon, but 17 Republicans vote against it MORE, chairman of the 170-member conservative Republican Study Committee, who was swept into office during the Tea Party wave in 2010. And Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) will face off this fall with an independent candidate with no political experience.

“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 BartonJoe Linus BartonBiden's gain is Democratic baseball's loss with Cedric Richmond Bottom line Lobbying world MORE, 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 JohnsonSamuel (Sam) Robert JohnsonVan Taylor wins reelection to Texas seat held by GOP since 1968 House seeks ways to honor John Lewis Sam Johnson: Fighter for the greater good 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 GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertCapitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter tests positive for coronavirus 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 CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMcSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview Republican senators urge Trump to label West Bank goods as 'Made in Israel' MORE, a fellow Texan, for president — underlying their own anti-establishment credentials.

But Texas is no stranger to upsets. In 2014, Rep. Ralph HallRalph Moody HallJohn Ratcliffe is the right choice for director of national intelligence — and for America Rising star Ratcliffe faces battle to become Trump's intel chief Former Texas GOP Rep. Ralph Hall dead at 95 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 John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE leading the GOP’s presidential pack, Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPrinciples to unify America Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats Obama on bipartisanship: 'There is a way to reach out and not be a sap' MORE (R-Ohio) toppled and Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorSpanberger's GOP challenger raises over .8 million in third quarter The Hill's Campaign Report: Florida hangs in the balance Eric Cantor teams up with former rival Dave Brat in supporting GOP candidate in former district 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 GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteBottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden Press: Trump's final presidential pardon: himself 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 Andrew BoehnerPrinciples to unify America Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats Obama on bipartisanship: 'There is a way to reach out and not be a sap' 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.