Elections

House Freedom Caucus looks to gain members as Texas GOP voters head for polls

In this Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, photo, Matt McCall, standing, and other Republican congressional candidates attend a forum, in New Braunfels, Texas. Texas holds the nation’s first 2018 primary elections Tuesday, March 6, 2018, and the campaign is providing a vivid exhibition of the Trump effect in GOP politics.
In this Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, photo, Matt McCall, standing, and other Republican congressional candidates attend a forum, in New Braunfels, Texas. Texas holds the nation’s first 2018 primary elections Tuesday, March 6, 2018, and the campaign is providing a vivid exhibition of the Trump effect in GOP politics. AP

Freedom Caucus and the House’s conservative ranks on Capitol Hill could score a host of new recruits in Texas’s GOP primaries Tuesday.

Front-runners in two GOP primaries have already pledged to join the Freedom Caucus — a band of Republicans known for bucking their own party’s leadership in Washington — and others on the ballot are getting a hand from groups aligned with its mission.

Texans currently account for three of the Freedom Caucus’s 32 members. Just one, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, is among those retiring this year.

Five other Texas Republicans are retiring in deep red districts — and the races to replace them are packed with hard-right conservatives.

The winners of all six primaries are almost certain to hold the seats for Republicans in November. With little to differentiate candidates in crowded races, a few conservative heavyweights have the power to shift Texas’s 36-member delegation further to the right by with their money and endorsements.

“These races can become easy pray for conservative outside groups … they’re really targeting a very narrow universe of conservative voters, and the vast majority of them are very conservative Republican districts,” said David Wasserman, House race editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Tarrant County Tax-Assessor Ron Wright, the frontrunner to replace Barton, and Chip Roy, one of the leaders in an 18-candidate pack to replace Rep. Lamar Smith, are both campaigning on plans to join the House Freedom Caucus. They each have the endorsement of Texas’s junior Sen. Ted Cruz, who’s worked closely with the caucus on Capitol Hill. The House Freedom Fund, a campaign arm of the House Freedom Caucus, endorsed Roy.

Formed in 2015, the House Freedom Caucus regularly opposes its own party to cut government spending. It counts pressuring former Republican House Speaker John Boehner out of leadership among its top accomplishments.

Wright and Roy have also both caught the attention of one of the few well-heeled Washington outside groups that’s willing to spend in GOP primaries. The conservative Club for Growth has shelled out $280,000 to help Roy, including TV ads attacking another Republican, William Negley, who has the backing of some of the San Antonio business community.

If Roy and Wright advance to May runoffs, that money could play a big role. Center-right groups that spend for Republicans are focused on holding the House majority in 2018 — not seats Republicans are expected to hold easily. Democrats need 24 seats to flip control of the chamber.

“The Club for Growth hasn’t really had a moderate counterweight,” said Wasserman. “That’s part of why the House Republican conference has drifted to the right.”

The Club for Growth shelled out millions opposing Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. After Trump became the nominee, it refocused its efforts on winning inexpensive races in open, red House seats, as well as defending a few conservative allies in the House and Senate.

In the race to replace retiring Rep. Sam Johnson, the Club endorsed conservative state Sen. Van Taylor, who is expected to notch his party’s nomination easily. Taylor also has Cruz’s endorsement.

The Club spent another $280,000 opposing two Republicans, Lance Gooden and Kenneth Sheets, in the race for retiring Rep. Jeb Hensarling’s Dallas area seat. Hensarling and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, have both lined up behind Bunni Pounds.

Cruz endorsed and campaigned with a different candidate, Jason Wright, in that race.

Just one incumbent Texas House Republican, Rep. Michael Burgess, faces a serious primary threat in 2018. Burgess isn’t a member of the House Freedom Caucus, but has a 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, and a perfect score with the conservative Family Research Council.

His opponent, Veronica Birkenstock, is aligning herself with Trump, and pledged to join the Freedom Caucus. Birkenstock met with Meadows to discuss her race at conservative gathering just outside of Washington last month.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz sat down with Anna Tinsley before the Tarrant County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner, the party's largest fundraising event each year, where he was the keynote speaker.

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