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The Far-Right is Staging an Ouster of Moderate Republicans in the Panhandle. Will Incumbents Outlast the Attack?

The Far-Right is Staging an Ouster of Moderate Republicans in the Panhandle. Will Incumbents Outlast the Attack?

King, Price and Seliger have all drawn challenges from right wing opponents who are running the Empower Texans playbook and taking money from ultraconservative advocacy groups.

Scotty Simpson, the owner of a farming irrigation supply store in the Texas Panhandle town of Morton, is back on his soapbox. Mind, this is a literal soapbox. Simpson is known around Morton for his fevered sermons on Jesus and conservatism, spontaneous diatribes he often unleashes on customers, friends and others who pass through his store — so much so that a carpenter friend built him a soapbox to stand on. Simpson, who is 5’5″ with tidily combed gray hair, now uses it liberally, though he wouldn’t use that word. It’s primary season and all he wants to talk about is voting out the Panhandle’s Republican elected officials he considers far, far too liberal.

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Scotty and Donna Simpson inside Frontier Valley Inc. in Morton.  Christopher Collins

One morning in late January, Simpson is railing against Representative Ken King and Senator Kel Seliger, the Republican state legislators who represent this dusty farming community of 2,000 about an hour west of Lubbock.

“Anyone who votes with the Democrats doesn’t represent me,” Simpson says as a big-screen TV affixed to a post in the middle of the room flashes Fox News headlines. He takes particular issue with King’s refusal last session to support a controversial amendment that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks, even in instances of severe fetal abnormalities. “Ken King is so far off the far side. I just can’t trust anything about him. You just can’t kill late-term babies — that has to be my bottom line today.” As for Seliger, Simpson thinks he’s been disloyal to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, the demagogic leader of the Senate. King and Seliger are two “of the most liberal Republicans” in the statehouse, he says.

Both of the lawmakers, along with Amarillo Representative Four Price, have drawn primary challenges from zealous right-wingers who say the current crop of Panhandle politicians isn’t conservative enough to pass Republican muster. The challengers are generally following a playbook developed by Empower Texans, a right-wing enforcement group that targets what it considers establishment Republicans: claim that you are unequivocally conservative and that the other guy is basically a Democrat, all the while vilifying bipartisanship and accusing your opponent of being a big-government patsy who’s soft on abortion. Simpson, along with the customers and workers who mill around inside the business that morning, say they’re sold.

Far-right groups, including Texans for Vaccine Choice, Texas Right to Life and Grassroots America — We The People are working to knock off the incumbents. And while the Panhandle is one of the reddest parts of the whole country (Trump took 90 percent of the vote in some of the counties here), the area continues to elect Republicans with a pragmatic streak. For instance, King has sought to secure funding for struggling rural schools; Price has been a champion for mental health care; and Seliger refused to divert money from public schools for private school vouchers. Wielding accusations of perceived liberalism, challengers have made the region a battleground in the civil war raging within the Texas GOP. After a wave of retirements and primary challenges from the right, the Texas Senate has been almost entirely purged of an older breed of Republican. That makes Seliger a choice target for his enemies.

In the three-way GOP primary for House District 88, the seat held by King, Simpson is supporting Jason Huddleston, a homeschooling advocate from Perryton. A stack of double-sided “Jason Huddleston for State Representative” banners lay in the corner of the room, ready to be strung up around town. In the three-way race for Senate District 31, Seliger’s seat, Simpson is leaning toward Mike Canon, a former Midland mayor challenging Seliger. Canon, like Huddleston, has the backing of Empower Texans. “Jason is a strong Christian and he’s not going to be swayed. He’ll be a really strong force down there,” Simpson said.

Around noon, Donna Simpson, Scotty’s wife and assistant, notices a blank space on the wall above the back door of the store. For years, a Confederate flag had hung there. “What happened to the flag?” she asked. Scotty said he took it down on the advice of his Hispanic hairdresser Lolo, who said that it’d be hard to preach to folks who think he’s a bigot. “I started thinking, ‘If I’m supposed to be doing all this Jesus stuff, is that flag shutting me down?’” Scotty said.

elections 2018
Scotty Simpson said he took the Confederate flag down on the advice of his Hispanic hairdresser Lolo, who said that it’d be hard to preach to folks who think he’s a bigot.  Christopher Collins

“Well, it’s part of our history and who we are,” Donna said.

Scotty was faced with a dilemma: put the flag back up and stay true to his beliefs, or leave it down so he can tell people about Jesus? “I don’t know, I didn’t throw it away,” Scotty said. “I just decided to take it down for a day or two and see what happens.” In some sense, the Texas Republican Party faces a similar choice: Whether to more firmly embrace a purity politics that alienates so many, or leave a place in the party for elected officials with a modicum of moderation. The question goes to the heart of the disconnect between ideology and pragmatism that made the 2017 legislative session one of the least productive and most divisive in history. Now that disconnect could swallow up the Panhandle.

After some thought, Scotty made his decision. He hung the flag back up.

Geographically speaking, Seliger’s Senate district isn’t the biggest in the state — that honor goes to Senator Charles Perry, whose Lubbock-based district lies just to the south. But the 31st is still pretty darn big, comprising 37 counties in a rectangle that stretches from the border with Oklahoma to the New Mexico line before snaking down the Panhandle’s west side to poke a finger into the oil-rich Permian Basin.

Seliger has held the seat since 2004, but was nearly unseated by Canon in 2014, when the senator eked out a surprisingly narrow five-point win. Now Canon’s back with the support of ultra-conservative groups, and he’s joined in his attack on the incumbent by Victor Leal, a Muleshoe businessman who operates a chain of Mexican restaurants in the area. The two challengers probably can’t outraise Seliger, who sits on a massive $1.3 million war chest. Canon and Leal have raised about $292,000 combined since July, campaign finance documents show.

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Mike Canon speaks to attendees of a candidate forum in at the senior’s center in Tulia.  Christopher Collins

In an Observer interview, Canon said the district deserves a more conservative senator, especially in the realm of limited government and local control. “I’m not happy, just like I wasn’t happy last time with a lot of the things that our senator has been doing and the direction he seems to be wanting to take Texas government,” he said. “I’m ready to be the senator for our district. It happens to probably be one of the most conservative districts in Texas and we need somebody that reflects those interests and that perspective.”

Seliger is politically vulnerable. He’s already been marked as the least conservative Republican senator in the very conservative Senate, which in modern Texas politics is reason enough to be targeted by the party’s far-right enclaves. But Seliger also voted against Patrick twice last session — once on a provision that would have required local governments to hold an election for certain tax increases and once more on the issue of taxpayer-subsidized vouchers to send students to private schools. He also was the only Republican senator to decline endorsing Patrick for re-election. Seliger did not return calls for an Observer interview.

Leal, who formerly sat on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation — a corporate-funded conservative think tank in Austin that has the ear of many elected officials — has made Seliger’s disloyalty to Patrick a campaign talking point. “His refusal to stand with Lieutenant Governor Patrick and insult the 19 other Republican Senators as well is further evidence he is out of touch with conservative values and more comfortable siding with the Democrats,” Leal wrote in an October press release.

Seliger fired back in an interview with the Amarillo Globe-News, saying, “I voted against two of [Patrick’s] 30 priorities. They’re his priorities and he wanted to see them all pass and they did pass. I stood in the way of nothing.”

Huddleston, who is challenging King in House District 88, has already worn out one pair of shoes on the campaign trail. On a blustery afternoon in Tulia, the six-foot, 300-pound candidate is trawling the town’s neighborhoods for King voters to convert. He said he’s seen “tremendous support” throughout the region, even in “enemy territory.” (He’s referring to Canadian, Ken King’s hometown.) He has a down-to-earth amiability and a sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor — as he cut across an open field to knock doors the next block over, Huddleston stopped to pick up a quarter from the grass. “Add it to the campaign fund,” he said.

Huddleston appeared to connect with a woman at one home on the town’s north side — they both attended West Texas A&M University — and she let him put campaign signs in the yard. But mostly people weren’t home, or if they were, they didn’t answer the door.

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Jason Huddleston talks to a voter while block-walking in Tulia.  Christopher Collins

House District 88 is a diagonal line that cuts through a swath of rural counties from the eastern Panhandle to the New Mexico line. Though there’s some canyon-y parts here and there, the region is mostly flat and usually windy. Farming and ranching are big business here. The prevailing attitude, said Hemphill County Judge George Briant, is that the government should “Stay out of my business, my billfold and my bedroom. Leave us alone, and if we have a fire that burns 40 percent of the county, we’ll call you’.”

Huddleston is at a definite monetary disadvantage in the primary race. Since filing for candidacy, the political novice has raised about $70,000, compared to King’s $242,000.

A sizeable portion of contributions received by Huddleston campaign have come from a number of far-right groups, including Texans for Vaccine Choice, the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party and Empower Texans, which is largely funded by Tim Dunn, a billionaire oilman from Midland. When I asked King at a candidate forum in Tulia why the groups were funding his opponent, he said, “I don’t know those people. I’ve never had any dealings with them. So I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care.” In January, Empower Texans ran an article on its website accusing King of lying about his voting record during a radio interview. As far back as 2012, Michael Quinn Sullivan, the group’s president and CEO, was prodding the lawmaker, nick-naming him “Ken the Tax King. Texas Right to Life placed King on its “2017 Disappointments List.”

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Jason Huddleston checks messages on his phone while block-walking in Tulia.  Christopher Collins

At the forum, Huddleston told the audience that Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones had ranked King the fourth most “liberal” Republican in the House and said the lawmaker is soft on abortion. But, of course, King’s ranking is relative to the ultraconservative votes cast by the state’s other Republicans. Even if King is slightly less conservative than his peers, it’s hard to fairly classify him as a liberal or soft on abortion — in 2013, for example, he voted for House Bill 2, a law that shut down half of the state’s abortion clinics and was later found to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.     

King scoffed at the characterization that he’s liberal. Later, I asked him if he wanted to respond. “I don’t respond to lies,” he said. But then he pushed across the table a six-page flyer on the litany of anti-abortion legislation he’s voted for in the House. “That’s my response.”

Ella Wegscheid is the chair of the Republican Party in Swisher County. She said the county has shifted to be more Republican in just the seven years she’s been in control of the local party. But even taking that into account, Wegscheid rejects the claim that King and Seliger are “liberal.” “Ken King is not a liberal. I know he’s not. Our senator and representative are very conservative and they do fight for us,” she said.

The Panhandle’s primary races illustrate in stark terms that the state’s GOP is divided into two warring factions, neither of which can reach any clear consensus on a few fundamental points: What does it mean to be a conservative? Is it good enough to represent the interests of your district, even if that means defying party leadership? And, perhaps most importantly, what do the voters want? If you ask Gary Willoughby, a county commissioner in Gray County, the challengers’ approach is working. He said he’s frustrated with King and Seliger and he senses that other folks in the area are too. “We’ve always been conservative up here, but we have a shift,” Willoughby said. “I do believe it’s coming back to conservatism.”

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Ken King speaks to attendees of a candidate forum in at the senior’s center in Tulia.  Christopher Collins

Jim Lowder, the former chairman of the Potter County Republican Party, said that “none of our elected representatives in the Panhandle vote consistently with how conservative we are.” But those hoping the far-right can make inroads in the Panhandle should temper their expectations, he said. “The center-right power structure has enormous resources, and they usually pick good horses. … It would take extraordinary talent and resources to overcome the inertia of the status quo in most years.”   

Jim Hall, an Army veteran and physician at Pampa Regional Medical Center, said he supports King and Seliger, and intends to vote them back into the Legislature. “I think they’re doing a good job for us. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” What people care about here is health care, education and jobs, Hall said. You can elicit “an emotional response” from people by railing against abortion, “but we’re not into engineering social change. … We’re just trying to live a good life.”

Briant, the Hemphill county judge, agreed. “We’re all on the same page” about abortion, he said, “but we’re not going to run into the street and start marching.”

It’s entirely possible this attempt at incumbent dethroning will fail. Lubbock Avalanche-Journal columnist Jay Leeson noted in an October column that the Panhandle has a history of bucking the political trends of the day — in 1964, eight of the 16 Texas counties that voted for Goldwater instead of LBJ were in the Panhandle. (In response, LBJ closed the Amarillo Air Force Base, costing the region dearly in lost jobs and revenue, Leeson noted.)

Briant called the far-right push in the region “an interesting twist” in the story of the Texas GOP. And with the political fissures between the Panhandle and the rest of the state opening wider, Briant fears the party may be on track to implode like the Democrats of yore.

“I hope that’s not what happens, but it could.”

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