Texas Speaker Straus beats back tea party challengers; Geren holds onto lead over French

Neither of the competing factions within the Republican Party gained much ground in Texas House of Representatives on Tuesday, with most incumbents fending off challengers no matter what side of the establishment versus anti-establishment fight they stood.  

That stalemate was mostly good news for House Speaker Joe Straus, whose grip on the top job in the House appears to have remained strong. He sailed to victory in his re-election bid for the San Antonio-based House District 121. And he avoided a significant net loss in fights between hard right conservatives and his lieutenants elsewhere in the state. 

With 65 percent of precincts reporting around midnight, Straus had claimed about 60 percent of the vote. Grassroots activists Jeff Judson trailed with 31 percent. His other opponent, former schoolteacher Sheila Bean lagged behind with 10 percent. 

Heading into the primary, Straus had been in a familiar position of fending off anti-establishment conservatives, including the group Empower Texans, who accused him of being too moderate. 

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“A couple of people who live far away from here once again tried to take this seat from our community, and they have once again failed,” Straus said after declaring victory. “Voters showed that angry rhetoric and dishonest ads are no match for a well-organized campaign that looks to a brighter future.” 

In addition, two of Straus’ top lieutenants survived hard-fought primaries from challengers claiming they were too moderate. Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the State Affairs Committee, eked out a narrow 222-vote victory over challenger Thomas McNutt, best known for his family’s ownership of the Corsicana-based Collin Street Bakery. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, led 58 percent to 42 percent over opponent Bo French with 80 percent of precincts reporting. French had argued to voters that Geren was too “liberal,” but struggled to overcome attacks from Taya Kyle, the wife of famed Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. French and Chris Kyle were business partners, but Taya Kyle sued French after her husband’s death, saying he had tried to push her out of the company. 

Numerous other Straus allies also won victories. Republicans John Raney of Bryan, Gary VanDeaver of New Boston, J.D. Sheffield of Gatesville and Brooks Landgraf of Baytown all won comfortably. 

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But all wasn’t good news for the establishment Republicans. Two Straus allies and , lost their re-election bids. State Rep. Debbie Riddle of Tomball lost to Valoree Swanson and Marsha Farney of Georgetown lost to Terry Wilson, a retired Army colonel. 

Those losses could be evened out somewhat by the defeats of two Straus critics in the House. Rep. Molly White, R-Belton, trailed challenger High Shine 51 percent to 49 percent with 64 percent of precincts reporting. And Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, trailed challenger Lance Gooden, a former state representative, 51 percent to 49 percent with 61 percent of precincts reporting. 

But multiple anti-Straus incumbents survived challenges by candidates more closely aligned with the Republican establishment. Conservatives state Reps. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, and Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, won the nominations for their seats easily. 

Meanwhile, two Republican incumbents are headed for runoffs. State Rep. Doug Miller New Braunfels, will face Kyle Biedermann. And with 85 percent of precincts reporting, Briscoe Cain was just short of the 50 percent threshold to defeat Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown. 

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On the Democratic side, incumbent Mary González, D-Clint, survived a challenge from former state Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-Tornillo. And state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Houston, who is appealing a five-count misdemeanor barratry conviction, is headed to a runoff with mediator Angelique Bartholomew.  

Julian Aguilar, Terri Langford and Alexa Ura contributed to this report. 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/03/01/texas-house-election-results/.