Texas primary down-ballot drama: Congress members on the brink

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, prepares to take his seat before a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, prepares to take his seat before a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. AP

There’s something going on in Texas: The state’s primary Tuesday has stirred up voters not just at the presidential level but at the more personal congressional-district level as well.

Some of Texas’ most senior members of Congress face stiff challenges from their own parties, including the newly installed House Ways and Means Committee chairman, Republican Kevin Brady; Republican Rep. John Culberson, a chairman, or “cardinal,” of a powerful appropriations panel; and a longtime Democratic member, Rep. Gene Green.

There’s been this melding of the tea party with the religious right.

Ed Emmett, Harris County judge

“There is without question congressional primary fever in Houston, at a level not seen in more than a decade,” Mark Jones, professor of political science at Rice University in Houston, said in an email. “Brady and Culberson are facing their most serious primary challenges since first winning office, while the challenge facing Green is the most serious since 1994.” All three contests are in the Houston area.

The political math will decide whether the incumbents have to go to a runoff May 24. It will take 50 percent of the vote outright to win the primary. Brady has three opponents, Culberson has two and Green has one.

“There seems to be an anti-incumbent mood out there, especially on the GOP side. This appears to reflect a sense that our politicians don’t really ‘get’ what’s going on in the country” or state, Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is a co-director of the university’s Texas Politics Project, said via email.

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This year, with enormous interest and turnout already seen in early voting of the presidential primary race, which features home-state candidate Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, one question is where new voters will go.

“Who are the new voters going to vote for? I would think that would presumably hurt an incumbent. The Trump vote is anti-establishment, anti-incumbent and anti-government,” Ben Barnes, a Democrat and former lieutenant governor who is now a lobbyist, said in a phone interview. Billionaire Donald Trump has attracted new voters with his outsider message.

Barnes said he was worried about Brady and Culberson. “I’d be heartsick for us to go and lose House Ways and Means,” he said. “These people and positions they hold are assets to Texas.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who is akin to a county executive, presides over the county that includes Houston and expects to see turnout in the GOP primary of 250,000 to 300,000, well over 2008’s high-water mark of 170,000.

“Nobody knows who these people are,” said Emmett. He is concerned about what might happen to Brady in particular. “It’s mind-boggling,” he said. “There are 10 races I’m going to watch Tuesday night, and one of them is Brady.”

Brady, 60, was first elected in 1996 to a district concentrated in the northern Houston suburbs. A longtime member of the tax-writing committee, he was next in line when its then-chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was tapped to become House speaker in November after John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he would step down.

Brady has three challengers, but former Texas state Rep. Steve Toth is his best-funded rival. Toth has tea party support and has been hitting Brady from the right for supporting the omnibus federal budget bill and voting to revive the U.S. Export-Import Bank. His other opponents are former military: former Marine Craig McMichael – Brady’s primary opponent in 2014 – and retired Army Lt. Col. Andre Dean.

Culberson, 59, first elected in 2000, is chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Departments of Commerce and Justice and the science agencies. His opponents are saying he is not conservative enough. Houston lawyer James Lloyd, who was endorsed by the Houston Chronicle, and Maria Espinoza, who has made immigration her issue, have waged a vigorous campaign against him.

Green, 68, has a different problem. Elected in 1992 in a Latino district, he is being challenged by a Latino, former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who did poorly in the 2015 Houston mayor’s race, failing to make the runoff. Several Hispanic members of the Texas Legislature have endorsed Green. “Adrian Garcia’s challenge to Gene Green has more to do with the district’s demographics (80 percent Latino) and Green’s race/ethnicity (Anglo),” said Rice’s Jones.

It may make for a nail-biter election night.