Republican incumbents who dared to buck their party leaders or supposedly influential activist groups had a target on their backs in the 2018 primaries.
Nearly all of them won anyway.
Even when Republican Gov. Greg Abbott put his own campaign money and clout on the line, he mostly came up empty-handed, failing to defeat maverick Republican Reps. Sarah Davis of Houston and Lyle Larson of San Antonio.
Perhaps no group got spanked harder Tuesday night than Empower Texans, a conservative group known for using hardball tactics and waging aggressive campaigns against legislators like Davis and Larson who buck the Tea Party orthodoxy. Its political action committee, fat with oil money, spent more than any other PAC in Texas as of late January, a Texas Tribune analysis showed, but when the smoke cleared from the 2018 Republican primaries, the group could claim only a small handful of scalps.
Of the 16 sitting state House members the group went after in the GOP primaries, only two were defeated — Rep. Jason Villalba, a Dallas Republican carrying self-inflicted wounds from his Twitter and Facebook rants, and Rep. Wayne Faircloth, R-Galveston, who was also opposed by Abbott and lost to a businessman who largely self-funded.
Villalba represents a district Democrats are targeting as a prime pickup opportunity in November, so interior designer Lisa Luby Ryan, the more conservative candidate who beat him, won't be a shoo-in.
Empower Texans can take some credit for helping to unseat incumbent GOP state Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, but he was opposed by his own lieutenant governor and had been underwater in the polls for months. GOP state Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, meanwhile, beat back Empower Texans' preferred candidate, narrowly escaping a runoff.
The group's top target — state Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth — also cruised to an easy re-election Tuesday night even though the hundreds of thousands of dollars Empower spent to oust him made his race the state's most expensive House contest. The Empower-endorsed candidate, Bo French, who also ran against Geren in 2016, improved his performance from two years ago by 1.4 percentage points. He still lost 57-43.
“The forces of extremism, like Empower Texans ... overplayed their hand, turned voters off and experienced significant losses in the March primaries,” said GOP consultant Eric Bearse, who helped Davis and three other candidates win amid an onslaught from Empower and other critics. “It started to become clear in some of these races that it really was a choice between our local representative and someone who is wholly owned by outside groups and outside money.”
In a tweet Tuesday night, Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan declared victory by pointing out that the organization helped re-elect all of the conservative “Freedom Caucus” House members on the ballot while knocking off Faircloth and helping to snag an open state House seat in staunchly conservative Montgomery County with the election of Steve Toth, who had formerly served in the Legislature.
Sullivan did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment, but in a subsequent tweet Wednesday he took note of firebrand Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's big re-election margin and pointed to runoffs in open seats formerly held by "RINOs" — a political slur meaning "Republicans in Name Only."
"House & Senate have moved right. GREAT!" he wrote.
Abbott, who crushed no-name opponents in his own primary, glossed over the losses of two of his three hand-picked House candidates in a Facebook Live event Tuesday evening, though he acknowledged that in all the primary races he got involved in, “some didn’t win.”
The governor said he took sides in primaries because he wanted Republican voters to have alternatives, and now that they have spoken he’s ready to move on to November, when the GOP will be fighting to stop a feared “blue wave” that could sweep some of their candidates out of the heavily-Republican Legislature.
“The important thing is getting involved, giving primary voters a choice, to choose the candidate they support,” Abbott said. “Now that we turn the corner and head toward November, it’s important that Republicans come together. Sure we may have differences in our family. But we are one family in the Republican Party.”
An Abbott campaign official said regardless of the election night results, the governor's willingness to back challengers will make other Republicans think twice before taking on the governor in the Legislature or straying too far from the conservative orthodoxy.
“I don’t think anyone can say that we didn’t send a message. What candidate wants to spend half a million dollars in a primary where they are the incumbent?” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "Additionally, it is clear that the governor’s coattails continue to be the most effective and sought after in the state. In the vast majority of contested races, the victors used the governor’s messages and images during the primary."