$4M spent, but few wins

Did GOP ad­vo­cacy group’s losses re­sult from tilt too far right?

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By EVA­MARIE AYALA Staff Writer eay­ala@dal­las­news.com

Ad­vo­cacy group Em­power Tex­ans spent more than $4 mil­lion on this year’s elec­tions hop­ing to be the king­maker of con­ser­va­tive can­di­dates.

But af­ter the fi­nal bal­lots were cast on Tues­day, only about a third of the po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee’s can­di­dates made it to vic­tory.

The vast ma­jor­ity of dol­lars and in­kind sup­port in­vested by Em­power Tex­ans — about $3 mil­lion — went to un­suc­cess­ful bids. The most notable ca­su­al­ties in­cluded Dal­las­area GOP leg­is­la­tors Konni Bur­ton, Don Huffines and Matt Ri­naldi.

All told, only about $1 mil­lion was spent on suc­cess­ful can­di­dates, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign fi­nance re­ports filed so far this year. That was fun­neled through both Em­power Tex­ans and its re­lated po­lit­i­cal ac­tion

com­mit­tee, Tex­ans for Fis­cal Re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Crit­ics of the group have been quick to point out its de­feats, say­ing Em­power Tex­ans’ ef­fort to get more hard­line Repub­li­cans into of­fice back­fired when vot­ers grew tired of their re­lent­less push and then elected Democrats.

“They don’t share the value sys­tem of the rest of Texas and are try­ing to shift the po­lit­i­cal struc­ture so far to the right that they’ve fallen off a cliff,” said Ja­son Vil­lalba, who was among a hand­ful of moder­ate Repub­li­cans Em­power Tex­ans tar­geted this year. He lost in the pri­maries to an Em­power Tex­ans can­di­date.

Em­power Tex­ans rep­re­sen­ta­tives did not re­turn phone calls and emails seek­ing com­ment. While its lead­ers have ac­knowl­edged on so­cial me­dia that the gen­eral elec­tion was a rough night for all Repub­li­cans, they have said that doesn’t mean it’s over for can­di­dates who share their val­ues.

“If you think the con­ser­va­tive agenda is DOA in the Texas Leg­is­la­ture, you are dead wrong,” wrote Cary Cheshire, who serves as vice pres­i­dent of Tex­ans for Fis­cal Re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Em­power Tex­ans backed 42 can­di­dates this year, with 14 win­ning of­fice.

Un­usual fac­tors

Long­time po­lit­i­cal ob­servers con­cede that it’s too soon to say ex­actly what the elec­tion re­sults mean for the fu­ture of Texas pol­i­tics, par­tic­u­larly for con­ser­va­tive groups like Em­power Tex­ans. They say too many un­usual fac­tors came into play this year.

Democrats fielded dy­namic U.S. sen­a­to­rial can­di­date Beto O’rourke. Many vot­ers were frus­trated by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his poli­cies. And then there are the shift­ing de­mo­graph­ics across the state as typ­i­cally con­ser­va­tive sub­ur­ban areas start to have more eth­nic and eco­nomic di­ver­sity.

“It is a sur­prise in some ways be­cause typ­i­cally, Texas is highly pre­dictable and th­ese kinds of can­di­dates do re­ally well,” said Matthew Esh­baugh­soha, chair of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of North Texas. “So what comes next in 2020? A lot of times, this can be a rub­ber band snap­ping back — you stretch it out and make some progress but if it snaps back, we haven’t re­ally moved.”

Em­power Tex­ans was founded in 2006, largely backed by West Texas bil­lion­aires Tim Dunn and broth­ers Far­ris and Dan Wilks to push more tea­party aligned can­di­dates across the state from lo­cal elec­tions to the Leg­is­la­ture as well as judges.

The group is of­ten crit­i­cal of school bond elec­tions and ef­forts to pass tax rat­i­fi­ca­tion elec­tions, say­ing dis­tricts need to be more fis­cally con­ser­va­tive. And it has sup­ported can­di­dates who are ad­vo­cates of voucher­like ef­forts that would fun­nel tax­payer money away from pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion for fam­i­lies to use to­ward pri­vate schools.

Af­ter Em­power Tex­ans sent mail­ers to pub­lic school em­ploy­ees in the spring, ask­ing them to be whistle­blow­ers dur­ing the elec­tions, watch­ing for mis­use of dis­trict re­sources or im­proper elec­tion­eer­ing, a so­cial me­dia cam­paign took off where teach­ers were tout­ing the good of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion with the hash­tag #blow­ingth­e­whis­tle.

By the time the gen­eral elec­tion sea­son was un­der­way this fall, a new so­cial me­dia cam­paign en­cour­aged vot­ers to “#Empt” the Leg­is­la­ture by vot­ing against can­di­dates backed by the group.

Nar­row wins

Em­power Tex­ans’ big­dol­lar in­vest­ment in Bur­ton’s Tar­rant County race for state Se­nate was a cam­paign is­sue that drew the fo­cus of her chal­lenger Bev­erly Pow­ell, who said lo­cal vot­ers are tired of the in­flu­ence from West Texas bil­lion­aires.

Even among can­di­dates in the win col­umn, many fin­ished their races with nar­row mar­gins. Repub­li­can Matt Sha­heen’s re­elec­tion in the Dis­trict 66 race in Collin County was by fewer than 400 votes. Chal­lenger Sharon Hirsch has yet to con­cede as pro­vi­sional and ab­sen­tee bal­lots are be­ing re­viewed.

Some say more moder­ate can­di­dates would have fared bet­ter this month if Em­power Tex­ans hadn’t spent big money to un­seat them. The group has heav­ily in­vested in far­right so­cial con­ser­va­tives who sup­ported leg­is­la­tion such as a bill that would have banned trans­gen­der peo­ple from us­ing the re­stroom that matches their gen­der iden­tity.

Dal­las’ Vil­lalba, who sup­ported anti­dis­crim­i­na­tion leg­is­la­tion fa­vored by the LGBT com­mu­nity and is a critic of Trump, was among those tar­geted. Lisa Luby Ryan beat him in the May pri­maries only to lose this month to a Demo­crat.

“Now Dal­las has two re­main­ing Repub­li­cans in its del­e­ga­tion,” Vil­lalba said. “My demise was that th­ese pri­mary vot­ers were so fo­cused on th­ese fringe ide­o­log­i­cal, anti­lgbt ini­tia­tives and not on eco­nomic devel­op­ment and pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. So then in the gen­eral elec­tion, we as Repub­li­cans were cast aside. In or­der to win some of th­ese seats back in the fu­ture, we’re go­ing to have to move back to that.”

Dal­las area state Sen. Bob Hall, R­edge­wood, was among those backed by Em­power Tex­ans who won a re­elec­tion bid. He dis­missed claims that the re­sults have any­thing to do with who is back­ing can­di­dates, say­ing the elec­tion was more about

how Texas is chang­ing, par­tic­u­larly not­ing the in­flu­ence of vot­ers who moved here from other states as their com­pa­nies re­lo­cated to Collin County and other areas.

“I don’t think it means con­ser­va­tives are dead,” Hall said. “I think it means in those dis­tricts we have peo­ple who iden­tify more as Demo­crat, in­clud­ing a lot of peo­ple who moved in from Cal­i­for­nia and brought their val­ues with them.”

County ‘gets bluer’

Hall said it’s too soon to know whether this year’s re­sults will make it harder to get con­ser­va­tive can­di­dates on the bal­lot again in two years. He pointed to Huffines’ dis­trict as an ex­am­ple, not­ing that al­though the now­ousted sen­a­tor didn’t face a Demo­crat chal­lenger when he was first elected in 2014, by the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in 2016, Hil­lary Clin­ton won that area with dou­ble­digit mar­gins.

“If you’re deep in Dal­las County — which gets bluer all the time — it doesn’t mat­ter what your val­ues are,” Hall said. “That’s al­most ir­rel­e­vant be­cause peo­ple are go­ing to show up and vote Demo­crat no mat­ter what. That’s a steep, up­hill climb and it wouldn’t mat­ter who was sup­port­ing him.”

And a chang­ing Texas means not only spend­ing more money cam­paign­ing, but also fre­quent gut­checks to see if a can­di­date’s mes­sage aligns with what vot­ers want, and think­ing about re­vers­ing a nearly two­decade trend of mov­ing ever more con­ser­va­tive.

“For the Repub­li­cans, right now they are do­ing some se­ri­ous soul search­ing on what the

fu­ture holds and if they need to be field­ing more mod­er­ates,” said Sherri R. Green­berg, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment at the Univer­sity of Texas.




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