Primary fight looms as Brady rises in D.C.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.