Politics & Government

Texas business group gears up to fight the tea party

These signs will soon be put out again when Texans head back to the polls for the May 22 primary runoff election.
These signs will soon be put out again when Texans head back to the polls for the May 22 primary runoff election.

A major Texas business group is gearing up to take on the tea party — taking the unusual step of endorsing three Republican candidates still engaged in heated GOP runoffs.

But the group faces stiff competition from the Club for Growth, a Washington-based conservative group that also wants to influence Texas’s Congressional races, and has much more money.

The Texas Association of Business’ political action committee plans to help Republicans Kevin Roberts, in Texas’s 2nd District, Lance Gooden in the 5th District, and Bech Bruun in the 27th District. Each is running to replace retiring GOP incumbents in seats Republicans are expected to hold in November. They face runoffs May 22.

GOP candidates in two of those races, Bunni Pounds in the 5th and Michael Cloud in the 27th, have the backing of a powerful conservative Club for Growth, which is also gearing up to help its candidates in the final weeks. In the 2nd District, the Club has met with Dan Crenshaw, but doesn't plan to be active in the runoff.

Club for Growth’s political action committee has already spent $1.5 million on Texas primary races this cycle. It reported about $5.7 million on hand as of March 31.

TAB’s PAC had raised a total of $37,000 at that point, and reported less than $5,000 in the bank.

The Texas business group says it's frantically working to catch up, citing its members' renewed frustration with Republicans in Washington, notably those inspired by the conservative grassroots tea party activists.

The Texas business group huddled in Washington last week for its annual legislative summit and vented about lawmakers’ failure to move on some of business’s biggest policy priorities, notably immigration reform.

GOP leaders on Capitol Hill are steering clear of an immigration debate that could put many members in a tough position ahead of the 2018 midterms.

TAB and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington are promoting an effort to go around that decision and force votes on four immigration proposals, led by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Jeff Denham, R-California.

“It all comes back to a demand for workers,” said TAB CEO Jeff Moseley. “If the economy’s robust and white hot and you’ve got jobs but you can’t find the workers, it puts a lid on your economy.”

TAB plans to create its own scorecard to grade federal lawmakers on its issues, a gauge it already uses for state-level office holders.

The group spent less than $5,000 on federal races in each of the last three election cycles. Its goal for this cycle is still modest — $165,000 by the end of the year.

Leaders said the group has not been an organized political force on the federal level in more than a decade, and is building from scratch this cycle.

“We’re not about party, we’re about business, but if you just look at the Republican Party, a lot of the obstacles are within their own party,” TAB President Chris Wallace told the Star-Telegram last week.

Eight of Texas’s 36 House members are retiring after the current term, including six Republicans.

The Club for Growth, which often spends inprimaries for noncompetitive Republican seats, is eagerly eying pickup opportunities five of those races.

In addition to Pounds and Cloud, it's supporting Ron Wright in the race to replace Rep. Joe Barton, Van Taylor in the race to replace Rep. Sam Johnson, and Chip Roy in the race to replace Rep. Lamar Smith.

Taylor won his primary outright in March. Pounds and Roy received more than $280,000 each in advertising from the Club, helping them advance to runoffs.

Wright faces a runoff against Republican Jake Ellzey, and could be included in the Club's next round of advertising, Club for Growth President David McIntosh told the Star-Telegram Monday.

The group is preparing an aggressive advertising blitz for its targeted Texas races in the final two weeks before the May 22 runoff.

So far, the Club has faced little competition from other GOP groups in Texas.

As Republicans grow increasingly concerned about maintaining control of the House, top GOP spenders, such as the super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, are focusing their resources on races they expect to be competitive in November.

Moseley, who took over as TAB's leader in 2017, said he wants to show Texas candidates there’s “a counterpoint” to the policies being promoted by conservative groups such as the Club for Growth.

McIntosh warned TAB's endorsement could be a turnoff for GOP voters in bright red Texas.

The group opposed a crackdown on sanctuary cities last year, and endorsed four incumbent Democrats for reelection in their primaries this year. Its support became a lightning rod in a GOP primary for a state Senate seat in January.

"They're widely viewed as the liberal to moderate Republican group," said McIntosh, who added that "pro-business, establishment Republican" wasn't a winning pitch among Texas GOP primary voters.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch