Tuesday night’s GOP primary made two big changes to the East Texas delegation, with upsets in House Districts 6 and 9, and left one incumbent in a fight for July.
State Reps. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, a seven-term incumbent, and Wayne Christian, R-Center, an eight-term incumbent, were defeated. Rep. Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, will face Nacogdoches attorney Travis Clardy in the July 31 runoff in a newly drawn district in which Nacogdoches voters represent a large voting bloc.
Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, was reelected handily in District 5, which now includes Lindale and eastern portions of Smith County. Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, defended his District 7 spot by defeating former representative Tommy Merritt, whom he beat in 2010. Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, also was reelected.
State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, retained his seat and Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, will face a Democrat in November.
Berman, 76, was outpaced at the polls by Schaefer 58 percent to 32 percent of the vote.
Schaefer, 36, an attorney, Naval Reserve officer and property manager, began cutting his political teeth in East Texas working for U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm in 1999. In 2002, while in law school at Texas Tech University, Schaefer painted then-businessman Randy Neugebauer’s house.
Neugebauer learned of his experience as Gramm’s regional liaison and enlisted him as communication director for a successful U.S. Congress campaign to unseat a Democrat incumbent.
During the 81st Texas legislative session, Schaefer got “hands-on experience” as counsel to GOP state Rep. Carl Isett, who was Sunset Commission chairman. Schaefer helped the commission review state agencies including the Texas Department of Transportation and Department of Insurance.
Smith County Republican Party Chairman Ashton Oravetz said he wasn’t surprised Schaefer defeated Berman but was surprised by the margin of victory. As Berman’s friend and long-time supporter, Oravetz said the race was difficult to watch but that District 6 will be well represented by Schaefer.
“I think people thought it was time for a change and the term limits pledge and (Berman’s) plans to not run again … it was a combination of things,” he said. “The votes are the results.”
In 1998, Berman pledged to serve four terms as part of a successful platform to defeat the incumbent. Berman said voters released him from the pledge by electing him to a fifth term.
Larry Carter, senior political science lecturer at The University of Texas at Tyler, said abysmal voter turnout gave Schaefer the opportunity to run a low-cost, door-to-door, personal campaign.
Voters cast 19,310 votes in the race, or 22 percent of the district’s 88,298 registered roll. Schaefer received 11,138 and Berman received 8,172.
Though not surprised by Schaefer’s win, the margin was “shocking,” Carter said.
“The numbers show people were ready for change,” Carter said. Berman “was fighting cancer, he’s an incumbent and more than 30 years older than (Schaefer) and getting out among the voters is important. (Berman is) a good campaigner but he had a lot going against him.”
Schaefer said knocking on more than 1,000 doors in heavily GOP neighborhoods sparked conversations with residents in a word-of-mouth, grassroots campaign. He relied on minimal radio and television spots. He spent $2,500 to produce (in his living room) and air an ad on local cable TV during the last five days of the race, he said, and ran limited radio advertisements.
The race “shifted” during the final two weeks, Schaefer said. Conversations with potential voters made him aware people were talking about his campaign.
“People kept mentioning their dad or a friend had said I stopped by their house already and that they were surprised to see me,” he said. “You could tell people were talking. We knew we were moving in the right direction.”
Schaefer was one of 16 newcomers elected to the state House Tuesday.
July & January
“The problem is going to be July 31,” Hopson said. “There’s not a handful of people that have ever voted in July.”
Carter said voter turnout typically favors challengers because their voting bases are typically disgruntled and motivated.
Hopson said Nacogdoches voters need to get to know him better and that he would begin game-planning a runoff strategy Wednesday afternoon.
The Clardy-Hopson runoff is one of 16 House races to be decided in July.
Carter said the runoffs, either local or statewide, such as for U.S. Senate, will continue the “race to the right” trend in Texas politics. Because GOP primaries decide, or effectively decide, many area and statewide races, candidates try to “out-conservative each other,” he said.
Hopson’s Democrat past likely will be mentioned throughout the summer, Carter said. Hopson has said he’s always been a conservative legislator and voted East Texas first but alluded Wednesday to an ongoing “purity fest” in GOP politics that ousted several incumbents, or led to runoffs.
Rep. Hughes may be able to capitalize on a more conservative House in January when the next legislative session begins, Oravetz said. On Tuesday, before winning the GOP nomination, Hughes circulated letters to House members announcing his intention to run for House Speaker. House Speaker Joe Straus easily won reelection to the House in his San Antonio district but several members of his leadership team were defeated or face runoffs. Before the 81st legislative session began in 2009, Straus was nominated from among 12 dissident Republicans who joined 64 Democrats to create a majority and oust then-Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland.
Craddick, a heavy-handed conservative, was vying for his fourth term as the presiding officer of the 150-member chamber. A majority support from members is needed to become speaker.
Republicans held a 76-74 majority in the House at the time. The narrow partisan split and divided GOP loyalties meant House Democrats, who endorsed Straus, decided the speaker race and conservative members have been aiming to oust him since.
Carter said Hughes’ future and decades-worth seniority in a less-experienced House may be in jeopardy if Straus is not defeated this time.
“Seniority is important if you play the game, but if you don’t there are penalties for bucking leadership,” Carter said. “If there’s no change he’s in trouble. He could find himself chairing the Mesquite Charcoal Committee.”
Schaefer said he is friends with Hughes, was aware of his announcement but has not even considered the speaker race. He said the delegation will be a little younger but that it will rely heavily on experienced members such as Flynn and Hughes in the House and Eltife and Nichols in the Senate.
The relative youth in the chamber will make him less conspicuous in the capitol hallways, he said.
“It’s not a bad time to be a freshman,” he said. “I know where the bathrooms are so I already have a leg up on them.”