Pri­mary fight looms as Brady rises in D.C.

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Matthew Tre­saugue

Novem­ber was a good month for U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady. Af­ter nearly two decades in the House, The Wood­lands Repub­li­can be­came chair­man of the pow­er­ful com­mit­tee that writes tax pol­icy. He also saw the open­ing of a new Veter­ans Af­fairs clinic within his 8th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict, a project that he had shep­herded through fed­eral bu­reau­cracy over the years.

But Novem­ber ended. And now Brady, who would seem to be at the pin­na­cle of his ca­reer, is fac­ing what could be his tough­est cam­paign, against a for­mer Texas House mem­ber try­ing to en­tice far-right vot­ers with a mes­sage of undi­luted con­ser­vatism.

In this highly charged elec­tion sea­son, the race be­tween Brady and Steve Toth re­flects ten­sions within the Repub­li­can Party’s con­ser­va­tive wing. And it will test whether

to­day’s anti-es­tab­lish­ment sen­ti­ment is stronger than the ap­peal of po­si­tion and se­nior­ity in Wash­ing­ton.

“Brady needs to take the chal­lenge se­ri­ously,” said Mark Jones, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at Rice Univer­sity. “It is not a lock. Toth is cer­tainly a more cred­i­ble chal­lenger than the typ­i­cal Repub­li­can gad­fly who is un­known and un­funded.”

Un­like Brady’s pre­vi­ous pri­mary op­po­nents, Toth has beaten an in­cum­bent, up­set­ting state Rep. Rob Eissler in 2012 af­ter a so-called RINO hunt in which he ac­cused the fivet­erm rep­re­sen­ta­tive from The Wood­lands of be­ing “Repub­li­can in name only.”

Toth — who left the House af­ter one term for a failed run for an open state Se­nate seat, los­ing by a 2-1 mar­gin — is em­ploy­ing a sim­i­lar strat­egy against Brady. On so­cial me­dia and in in­ter­views, Toth has crit­i­cized him for not do­ing more to op­pose Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s poli­cies, like de­fund­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act and Planned Par­ent­hood.

“Kevin and I will say the same things, but it’s about con­vic­tion and how deep that con­vic­tion is,” he said.

Na­tional pro­file

Brady, 60, de­scribed him­self as a con­ser­va­tive who gets things done. Last month he was handed the chair­man’s gavel for the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, a 39-mem­ber panel where leg­is­la­tion on taxes, trade, Medi­care and So­cial Se­cu­rity be­gins.

The chair­man­ship could make him the most in­flu­en­tial Texan in the House since Tom De­lay, the Sugar Land Repub­li­can who re­signed as ma­jor­ity leader in 2005. Brady has pushed for a flat­ter tax code and the cre­ation of a voucher pro­gram un­der Medi­care.

“I have worked my way up and can make a big­ger dif­fer­ence” as Ways and Means chair­man, he said. “Peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate that I have never changed. I’ll con­tinue to work and take tough votes.”

Brady, a South Dakota na­tive who lives in The Wood­lands with his wife, Cathy, and two teenage sons, is a for­mer Cham­ber of Commerce ex­ec­u­tive and state law­maker. He says he has logged more than 2 mil­lion air­line miles while com­mut­ing ev­ery week from his home to Wash­ing­ton.

The dis­trict he serves pokes north from the rapidly grow­ing sub­urbs of The Wood­lands and King­wood to the de­clin­ing farm towns of Leon and Hous­ton coun­ties. The dis­parate com­mu­ni­ties — old and new Texas — are bound by strong Repub­li­can ties.

The GOP has held the seat since 1981. Brady was elected for the first time in 1996. Since then, he has not had a close elec­tion, pri­mary or gen­eral. Two years ago, he faced no Demo­cratic op­po­nent.

Pri­mary bat­tle

Toth, 55, who lives in Con­roe and owns two pool com­pa­nies, is wa­ger­ing on the idea that Brady’s grip on the dis­trict might not be as strong as it once was. He has faced chal­lengers in the last three pri­maries, and his mar­gin of vic­tory has nar­rowed with each elec­toral test. Still, he won the 2014 pri­mary by 36 per­cent­age points over Craig McMichael, a Marine Corps vet­eran from The Wood­lands.

McMichael and re­tired Army Lt. Col. An­dre Dean of Madis­onville also are com­pet­ing in the March 1 pri­mary. There are no Democrats run­ning for the seat.

“All con­gress­men are vul­ner­a­ble if they be­tray the in­ter­ests of cit­i­zens,” said McMichael, who faults Brady for ex­ces­sive fed­eral spend­ing.

Dean said Brady has drawn three chal­lengers this time be­cause “all three of us know the an­gry voice of the peo­ple.”

Toth said he is try­ing to re­peat the his­toric up­set of House Ma­jor­ity Leader Eric Can­tor by a po­lit­i­cal novice in a GOP pri­mary last year. The up­set was part of the tea party wave that ear­lier car­ried con­ser­va­tive out­siders Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, among oth­ers, to the Se­nate.

In hind­sight, an­a­lysts said Can­tor, once a leader of the re­bel­lious right flank, missed warn­ing signs by fo­cus­ing on his role as a House leader and strate­gist rather than on the peo­ple of his Vir­ginia dis­trict. He also was as­sailed for be­ing too open to an im­mi­gra­tion over­haul.

Opin­ions back home

Wally Wilk­er­son, who leads the Mont­gomery County Repub­li­can Party, said Brady has avoided Can­tor’s mis­takes. Even as he built a na­tional pro­file, Brady has re­turned home on week­ends and hosted town-hall meet­ings. At the cer­e­mo­nial open­ing of the ex­panded VA clinic in Con­roe, he ad­dressed veter­ans by name, of­fered hand­shakes and hugs and asked about their fam­i­lies or lat­est fish­ing trips.

“This is one dis­trict where you can run into your con­gress­man at the gro­cery store,” Wilk­er­son said. “Brady is po­lite and lis­tens to ev­ery­one. Even if peo­ple dis­agree with him, they don’t dis­like him.”

But Wilk­er­son still hears lo­cals grum­bling about Repub­li­cans in Wash­ing­ton. They’re tired of ca­reer politi­cians and look­ing for a leader with au­then­tic­ity.

“There is such an an­tiWash­ing­ton sen­ti­ment out there,” Wilk­er­son said. “But some will rec­og­nize the sig­nif­i­cance of Brady’s po­si­tion” as a com­mit­tee chair­man.

Al­li­son Win­ter, who lives in The Wood­lands, is among the Repub­li­cans who don’t see Brady’s new stature as a rea­son to vote for him. She in­tends to back Toth be­cause the in­cum­bent “is just go­ing along with es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans.”

“It’s be­come a ca­reer for him,” Win­ter said of Brady. “When peo­ple stay too long, they lose sight of why they went there in the first place.”

Other Repub­li­cans say they like Toth as a per­son and can­di­date but can’t vote against Brady be­cause of his job per­for­mance.

“Mont­gomery County is very con­ser­va­tive, and there are al­ways peo­ple who think they can do a more con­ser­va­tive job than Kevin has done,” said Paul Ge­bolys, a GOP precinct chair­man in The Wood­lands. “But they get car­ried away by ide­ol­ogy and don’t look at the facts. There isn’t a weak­ness in his con­ser­va­tive record if you look at it hon­estly.”

The con­ser­va­tive group Her­itage Ac­tion for Amer­ica lists Brady as one of the least con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans in the Texas del­e­ga­tion. Mean­while, the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive Union, one of the coun­try’s largest and old­est con­ser­va­tive groups, praised him af­ter he be­came Ways and Means chair­man, cit­ing a nearly per­fect score for his ca­reer vot­ing record, as well as his ad­vo­cacy for fewer reg­u­la­tions, lower taxes, tax re­form and “our con­sti­tu­tional rights.”

Party lead­ers ex­pect a record turnout for the GOP pri­mary be­cause of the com­pet­i­tive pres­i­den­tial race — and that could be help­ful for Brady. In­cum­bents are most vul­ner­a­ble in low-turnout elec­tions, when vot­ers want­ing change are more likely to cast bal­lots than those who fa­vor the sta­tus quo.

Money ad­van­tage

Brady also will have a money edge. One of the House’s top fundrais­ers, he had roughly $1 mil­lion on hand on Sept. 30 for his cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est fi­nance state­ment sub­mit­ted to the Fed­eral Ethics Com­mis­sion. He spent more than $2 mil­lion on his last cam­paign.

Toth, mean­while, is start­ing from scratch. By some es­ti­mates, he will need at least $200,000 to mount a chal­lenge. That’s about how much lit­tle­known David Brat raised to de­feat Can­tor, who spent $5.8 mil­lion on that race, FEC records show.

Toth said his im­me­di­ate pri­or­ity is rais­ing enough money by the end of the year to prove to na­tional con­ser­va­tive groups with deep pock­ets that he can com­pete. If he does, then he might get their help with tele­vi­sion ads, so­cial me­dia and get-out-the-vote oper­a­tions.

“It’s an up­hill strug­gle,” Toth said, “but it’s doable.”

Gary Coron­ado / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady meets with veter­ans at a rib­bon-cut­ting cer­e­mony for a new Veter­ans Af­fairs clinic he helped bring to his dis­trict.

Steve Toth, 55, of Con­roe is a for­mer mem­ber of the Texas House.

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