AUSTIN — Two years ago there was a new political phenomenon in Texas and across the nation.
Unhappy with the political and economic direction of the state and nation, a good number of conservative activists identified with the tea party movement challenged veteran Republican officeholders they perceived as either moderates or RINOs (Republicans in name only).
In West Texas, the best example was Lubbock accountant Charles Perry unseating state Rep. Delwin Jones, also of Lubbock. Some conservative groups had long targeted Jones for defeat, mainly because of his opposition to former House Speaker Tom Craddick and to school vouchers.
But now we could be witnessing a new political phenomenon. Record numbers of conservative Republicans are also facing intraparty challengers, especially in Texas House races.
Of the 35 House Republicans facing challengers in the May 29 GOP primary, at least half have solid conservative credentials, including Perry — whom Jones is challenging in a rematch — and Jim Landtroop of Plainview.
Well-known conservative Republicans who also drew intraparty challengers include Leo Berman of Tyler, Dan Flynn of Van, Bryan Hughes of Mineola, Debbie Riddle of Tomball and David Simpson of Longview.
On the opposite side of the political spectrum, six House Democrats also drew challengers from their own party and the most visible are Lon Burnam of Fort Worth — considered the most liberal — Garnet Coleman of Houston and Rene Oliveira of Brownsville.
As previously noted in this column, although Texas is a GOP-dominated state, this year Republican incumbents drew far more intraparty challengers than Democrats, even in proportion to their numbers.
So, in a sense, this is the first major test for tea party-backed legislators such as Perry and Landtroop.
However, in Perry’s case, the fact Jones is challenging him shouldn’t surprise anyone because when Perry unseated him, Jones said he might run again. It is the unusually high number of other conservative Republicans drawing intraparty challengers that’s somewhat surprising.
Landtroop alone drew three in the drastically redrawn House District 88 and two — Canadian school board president Ken King and Pampa businessman Mac Smith — emphasize their conservative credentials. Former Rep. Gary Walker of Plains, the third challenger, is stressing mostly the need for West Texas to regain some of its lost seniority in the House plus his water management experience.
Although the District 88 race is expected to be one of the most closely watched Texas Legislature contests in the May 29 election, other Republican races could also get lots of attention because the conservative incumbents have made a name for themselves, particularly Berman and Riddle.
In recent sessions Berman and Riddle have filed anti-illegal immigration bills that the Republican-leadership has not endorsed. This is because in the 2007 session Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott advised then-House State Affairs Committee chairman David Swinford, R-Dumas, that if such bills passed they would not survive any legal challenge, plus the state would spend millions of dollars unsuccessfully defending them in court.
Another West Texas race with the potential of drawing statewide and even national attention is between veteran U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Lubbock and Chris Winn, former chairman of the Lubbock County Republican Party.
Conservatives such as Landtroop couldn’t figure out why Winn challenged Neugebauer since he is one of the most conservative members of Congress. That’s a question others are asking about some other conservatives drawing intraparty challengers.
The Neugebauer-Winn contest should be interesting because, as one well-known Lubbock Republican put it, if Winn can raise the money needed for a strong race, even if he loses, he could show that Neugebauer can be beaten in 2014.
This could well be the case in the Landtroop race and other contests where tea party-backed incumbents are being tested. We’ll find out on May 29 whether these folks stand on shaky ground or even voted out of office, just like Jones and other moderate Republicans were two years ago.
ENRIQUE RANGEL is the A-J’s Austin bureau chief.. For comment, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 12457, Austin, TX 78711-2457.