In GOP runoffs for the Texas House, viability in November is a leading concern

The floor of the house on April 11, 2019. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

Texas Republicans are set to soon finalize their nominees for three state House seats that will likely be competitive in November, races that have elevated debates over who is the most viable for the general election.

With the Tuesday runoffs, the GOP will select nominees to take on two Democrats who flipped seats in 2018: Reps. Vikki Goodwin of Austin and Erin Zwiener of Driftwood. Republicans will also make their pick for the seat of retiring Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, who saw an unexpectedly close race two years ago.

Top Republicans are especially focused on the runoffs to challenge Goodwin and fill Miller’s seat as Democrats hope to flip the House for the first time in roughly two decades. In the primary, Gov. Greg Abbott endorsed a candidate to replace Miller, former Fort Bend County GOP Chair Jacey Jetton, while the governor more recently picked sides in the runoff to take on Goodwin, backing Austin police officer Justin Berry. Last week, the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group focused on state legislative races, endorsed Jetton and Berry and announced it would help them as part of a $200,000 investment across five Texas House runoffs.

“Our thought is we need to get candidates who have real-world experiences different than the average candidate and people who have the communication skills and the policies and the personality that can get them to reach out to win independent, swing, voters in the fall,” said Dave Carney, Abbott’s chief political strategist. “It’s always the idea to get the best nominee out of the primary for these seats.”

In addition to the Republican runoffs for the Goodwin and Miller seats, Carrie Isaac and Kent “Bud” Wymore are facing off to take on Zwiener. Isaac, executive director of an Austin-based nonprofit and wife to former state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, got close to winning outright in the three-way March primary, garnering 48% of the vote to Wymore’s 41%.

While Isaac and Wymore, former chair of the Hays County Republican Party, duked it out in the primary, the runoff has been quieter, and GOP leaders and groups seem less concerned with who emerges as the nominee against Zwiener than they do in the districts held by Goodwin and Miller.

Still, the theme of viability in November has at times surfaced in the race. In a recent email to supporters, Isaac pointed to her list of endorsements from elected officials, saying “they know I’m the strongest candidate that gives us the best chance to win in November" to work on cutting property taxes and securing the border, among other things.

In another Austin-area House seat, Berry and Austin attorney Jennifer Fleck are facing off for their party’s nomination to take on Goodwin. Berry advanced to the runoff after earlier results had the candidate finishing third, and thus missing the overtime round, by just one vote.

Since that March contest, the contrast between Berry and Fleck has sharpened considerably, with Berry’s campaign seizing on what Fleck has said and done during the coronavirus pandemic. In mid-March, as the virus was hitting the state, Fleck traveled to the beach for what she characterized on social media as an already-planned spring break trip with family. Then, in April and May, Fleck attended rallies in Austin, joining activists calling on Abbott to begin reopening parts of the state.

“She self-destructed and disqualified herself in the last twelve weeks,” Craig Murphy, a spokesperson for Berry’s campaign, told the Tribune. “People took one look and, without any doubt, knew she would have no chance to win in November."

Fleck, who on social media has often downplayed the danger of the virus, has aligned herself with hardline conservative groups such as Texas Right to Life and Gun Owners of America, earning support from both in her bid for the House seat. She has also picked up endorsements from two of the three other Republican candidates in the March primary: former Austin City Council member Don Zimmerman, who is now seeking a seat in the Texas Senate, and Austin lawyer Aaron Reitz.

Fleck has also brushed off Abbott’s endorsement of Berry, often invoking the hashtag #FleckTheEstablishment in posts on social media.

“Please tell me,” she wrote in a recent post on Facebook, “Why on God's green earth would this man endorse against me in a contested primary runoff that I lead and spend money to subvert the will of the people?”

Fleck’s track record has also caught the attention of Associated Republicans of Texas, a prominent GOP group supporting Berry. In a recent mail piece, the group contrasted the two candidates by casting Fleck as the candidate “focused on fringe issues” and Berry as the one with experience and electability on his side.

“While Justin Berry has focused on core conservative issues, Fleck has focused on fringe issues that will make her unelectable in November,” a line on the mailer reads. “With Democrats spending millions to make the Texas House like Nancy Pelosi’s U.S. House, we cannot risk this seat on Jennifer Fleck.”

Fleck, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story, addressed the mailer on social media in June, saying it was sent out “on behalf of my sneaky opponent.” Responding to the “fringe issues” criticism, Fleck said in a Facebook post, “If fringe issues are protecting children, families and parental rights, then YES I am fringe. I am very electable. Judge for yourself.”

“You can’t risk choosing any other candidate but me,” Fleck wrote. “I am a fighter and I will be your champion! Stop wasting your money trying to beat me dolts. The People will decide.”

Meanwhile, the Republican nominating process for Miller’s seat has been a rollercoaster since the primary.

The incumbent was initially running for reelection last year and had drawn three primary challengers: Jetton as well as Leonard Chan and Matt Morgan. But after Miller suggested to the Houston Chronicle late last year that Jetton and Chan were running against him because they are “Asian,” Abbott rescinded his endorsement of Miller and the lawmaker decided against a reelection campaign.

Abbott endorsed Jetton in the run-up to the March primary — and Miller got behind Morgan, a Richmond insurance agent, four days later.

Despite Abbott’s involvement, Morgan almost won outright in the three-way primary, getting 49.7% of the vote to 40.7% for Jetton. The third candidate, Leonard Chan, has since endorsed Morgan.

Morgan said he sees himself as the better choice for the general election because he has stronger connections to the district. He said he has lived there “basically my entire life” and has gotten to know so many residents — “and some that are Democrats that will come out and vote for me in November.”

“I have crossover capabilities with those deep roots,” Morgan said in an interview.

Jetton said in an interview that the debate over general-election viability “hasn’t been a huge part” of the runoff but noted he has been on the front lines of the fight to keep Fort Bend County red. He said he has “been voting in Republican primaries and been part of the party for the last decade,” contrasting himself with Morgan, who Jetton said has been not as “involved in a lot of the work that’s been done to try to” hold the GOP line in the politically changing county.

“I’ve been in the trenches working on this for a long time,” Jetton said.

Morgan’s lack of a Republican primary voting history before March has drawn fire in the runoff, and a recent mailer against him said, “With so much at stake, we can’t gamble on a REPUBLICAN IN NAME ONLY.” Morgan took to Facebook to denounce the mailer last week.

Miller has remained a factor in the race, given his support for Morgan. The candidate said Miller’s controversial remarks from last year do not come up much on the campaign trail and that he does not believe they would be an issue for him in the general election.

“Should I win this runoff, I’m obviously a different person than Rick Miller,” Morgan said. “Because he supports me doesn’t necessarily mean I support everything he’s done or said.”

Noting he is “not a believer of cancel culture,” Chan said in an interview that he has spoken with Miller several times since the controversy and believes he understands why his words were wrong. Miller’s support for Morgan was “not a factor” in Chan’s post-primary endorsement of Morgan, Chan added.

There is also a Democratic primary runoff for Miller’s seat, between L. Sarah DeMerchant, a Sugar Land IT executive who lost to Miller by 5 percentage points in 2018, and newcomer Suleman Lalani, a Sugar Land physician. DeMerchant and Lalani finished close in the four-way March primary, getting 30% and 32% of the vote, respectively.

Democrats will also lock in their nominees next week for two other battleground state House districts. Tom Adair and Lorenzo Sanchez are competing to challenge Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, while Akilah Bacy and Jenifer Rene Pool are vying for the seat of retiring Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston.

Bohac’s seat is expected to be particularly competitive in November after he won reelection in 2018 by just 47 votes. Republicans already picked their nominee for the seat, Lacey Hull, in the March primary.