Primary battle for Texas Senate District 31 seat mirrors GOP civil war

A RECORD ANALYSIS BY ROBIN L.MITCHELL

As early voting ends at 5 pm tomorrow and primary election day looms ahead on Tuesday, the struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party is writ large in Texas’ District 31 Senate race. Ruthless intraparty warfare, pitting moderate business-minded conservatives against hard-right social conservatives across the Lone Star State, has reached fever pitch locally.

District 31, represented by four-term incumbent Kel Seliger, of Amarillo, spans 37 counties from the Panhandle to the Permian Basin. After 14 years in the Senate, veteran Seliger is embroiled in the race of his political life against challengers restaurateur Victor Leal of Amarillo and former Midland mayor Mike Canon. Seliger is an anomaly in Austin’s take-no-prisoners political environment: he votes his district. That’s incredibly rare, and caused him to run afoul of his Republican caucus colleagues and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

A longtime proponent for public education and local control, Seliger opposed two bills in the 85th legislative session that supported private school vouchers and lowering caps on property tax rollback rates. He was the only Senate Republican who voted against the measures championed by Patrick. Why the opposition to school vouchers and rollback rates?

In an interview with columnist Jay Leeson in the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, Seliger explained his votes. “Senate Bill 3 was offering vouchers, so kids could take the money that would normally go to public school and put them into private schools,” he said, “The problem was that in that bill there was absolutely no accountability.”

Even an amendment exempting West Texas from the voucher program couldn’t sway Seliger’s vote. “I can’t be bought off,” he said, “If it’s not good policy in Lubbock County, then it’s not good policy in Harris County. And it was the wrong thing to do.”

And what about Dan Patrick’s key policy priority to restrict how much cities and counties can raise property taxes without voter approval? Seliger reasoned that the measure would hamstring local taxing entities, while doing nothing to address the underlying property tax issue.

“My conviction is that we need to do something about taxes. I’m one of the few people around who still believes in local control, who believes that the people who are closest to the voters probably do the most effective job,” he said. “Senate Bill 2 didn’t lower any taxes.”

Seliger’s outlier status earned him Patrick’s ire and put him squarely in the crosshairs of Empower Texans, a dark-money 501(c)(4) organization that’s wielding enormous influence in Austin and across the state. Asked about Empower Texans, Sen. Seliger acknowledged the group’s power, telling Leeson,

“I think they have a lot of influence. But I don’t work for some shadowy group at 8th and Congress in Austin.” “I work for the working folks of West Texas,” he said, “And it will always be that way.”

So who does work for the bunch at 8th and Congress? Well, follow the money. According to the latest Texas Ethics Commission reports (via Harvey Kronberg’s Quorum Report) Sen. Kel Seliger has $873,000 on hand, while his opponent Mike Canon has $262,000, and Victor Leal has less than $5,000. Canon’s campaign got a six-figure boost from the Empower Texans PAC.

A small group of mega-rich white guys want to buy the Texas state government. Is it for sale? We’re about to find out.

Empower Texans and its various tentacles (Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Texas Right to Life, Texas Homeschool Coalition) are pouring millions of dollars into selected candidates’ coffers and are specifically targeting incumbents who don’t toe their particular party line. The money comes from heavyweight donors, including fracking bazillonaires Tim Dunn of Midland; Farris andDan Wilks of Cisco; and Ralph Schmidt, retired head of Western Refining Co. Dunn is the group’s chairman of the board, and his hard-right-wing beliefs inform Empower Texans and its offshoots’ goals.

Passage of school voucher legislation that would allow parents to apply their school property taxes toward private or religious school education tops their agenda. Which brings us to Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). an ultra-conservative think tank funded by national name-brand political players like the Koch brothers, ConocoPhillips, Verizon, Altria, various energy and utility companies and—wait for it—Tim Dunn. Founded in 1989 by San Antonio physician James R. Leininger, TPPF supports public school vouchers, criminal justice reform, fossil fuel use and deregulation, and is a climate-change denier.

Victor Leal was a member of the board of directors of the Texas Public Policy Foundation from 2010 until leaving in August to enter the Senate race. He has hired the same campaign consultant as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Mike Canon is endorsed by Empower Texans, Texas Right to Life, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, and Young Conservatives of Texas. Victor Leal is supported by Texas Right to Life and Hispanic Republicans of Texas.

Kel Seliger has received endorsements from the Texas Medical Association, Associated Republicans of Texas, Texas Association of Business, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas Parent PAC, Texas Association of Realtors, Texas Association of Manufacturers, National Federation of Independent Business, and Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Joe Strauss.

Seliger is rather pointedly not endorsed by the sitting President of the Texas Senate, nor does his name appear on Patrick’s list of endorsements—the only Republican senator missing. In Oct., Patrick called Seliger as a courtesy to let him know that every other Republican Senator had endorsed him, according to an email from Patrick’s senior advisor Sherry Sylvestor to the Houston Chronicle.

“He [Patrick] gave him the opportunity to do so as well,” Sylvestor said, “The Senator declined saying he was focused on his own race.”

In a phone interview with the Chronicle, Seliger said he had a cordial conversation with Patrick but was not asked to make an endorsement. Asked if he supported the Lt. Governor’s re-election, Seliger said, “I can’t imagine why not.”

“I can guarantee you this,” he said, “I will not endorse anybody in the Republican Party running against him.”

All three candidates for the District 31 GOP slot check off the usual conservative requirements-for-success boxes: pro-gun, prolife, pro-free markets and limited government, and anti-illegal immigration. All three want to lower your taxes, foster job growth, secure the border, and keep government out of your way.

Their differences? Leal and Canon approve of school vouchers, Seliger sees that as a threat to the public school system—and particularly, to public school funding.

Canon and Leal approve Lt. Gov. Patrick’s plan for an additional cap on property tax rate increases. Seliger contends that local control of local government is best and one-size-fits-all Austin mandates hamstring local officials.

The challengers both call for term limits, which is what one does when running against a four-term veteran. The veteran incumbent argues that we have term limits: they’re called elections.

The inestimable Oofie Abraham, who knew something about state politics, was fond of pointing out the geographic reality that five state capitals lie closer to Canadian than Austin does. Senator Seliger has put a finer point on the issue with an ad buy charging downstate pols with treating the Panhandle as its convenience store. They periodically raid our stores of fuel, food, fiber, and tax monies, before going about their business-as-usual along the I-35 corridor.

The man makes a fair point.

Our issues are not Dallas issues, nor Austin, Houston, or San Antonio issues— at least, for the most part. And District 31’s huge geographic area has exactly one senator to speak up and represent the Panhandle and Permian Basin’s interests. That person better have some clout, and that kind of clout comes with seniority.

A spare 3,525 votes separated Seliger and Canon the last time these two met in the political arena. We can gather up that many bodies for a high school football game. Surely the voters of the 31st District will want to weigh in on their political future next Tuesday. Turnout is key, and decisions are made by those who show up.

Should Seliger, Canon, or Leal fail to receive a majority of the vote (50 percent, plus one), a runoff election between the two top vote-getters will be held in six weeks. Given that there is no Democratic primary candidate, the road ahead to the statehouse is clear.

Politics has been a internecine blood sport since Julius Caesar’s “Et tu Brute” utterance in ancient Rome, but the metaphorical knives seems especially sharp this election season. The 31st District Senate race is being scrutinized around the state to determine just how strongly the Ides of March winds are blowing.

Early voting ends tomorrow at 5 pm at the Hemphill County Courthouse, in room 202. Primary election day dawns bright and early at 7 am on Tuesday, March 6. Polls will close at 7 pm.

Republican Primary polling places will be open from 7 am to 7 pm in the following locations:

Precinct 101–Hemphill County Courthouse–400 Main Street
Precinct 201–Canadian Fire Station–2 Main Street
Precinct 301–Baker Elementary School–723 Cheyenne Street
Precinct 302–Gem Community Building–16425 Co. Rd. S
Precinct 303–Precinct #3 Barn–9450 Co. Rd. 22
Precinct 401–Canadian ISD–Canadian High School–621 S. Fifth

All Democratic Primary polling will be conducted on March 6 at the Hemphill County Courthouse.

Precinct information can be found below, or on an interactive map here.

Precinct Map

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