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In two of Texas' hottest primaries, it's congressional clout versus ideological purity

Republican Kay Granger & Democrat Henry Cuellar excel at securing federal funding for their state, but they are beating back primary challenges within their parties.
Credit: REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, is the leading Republican on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Business is off by 40% these days for Brad Williams, the owner of Omaha’s Military Surplus store on White Settlement Road, once a prime retail location heading into downtown Fort Worth.

But thanks to Panther Island, a massive water control and entertainment district project spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, Omaha’s is as hard to spot from the road as the camouflage shirts it sells. Once found, the storefront is inaccessible. Any potential customer must follow a series of signs to find the hidden entrance in the back. Williams hopes that once construction winds down, business will come back.

“Hopefully, but they built a bridge above us so it will be hard to access us either way,” he said. “It couldn’t be any worse, I don’t think.”

Williams and his wife are plenty unhappy with their longtime congresswoman, and for the first time since she’s been in office, there's a legitimate chance she won't be back, thanks to a robust primary challenge from former Colleyville City Councilman Chris Putnam. But Williams also wants to see the project completed, and Granger’s seniority and sway on Capitol Hill might be the only hope of getting it done.

The Williams' conundrum in some ways represents the American electorate in 2020: Unhappy with the status quo in Congress, but unsure of taking risks with unknown quantities. It’s a similar dilemma 400 miles to the south, in Laredo, where Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar is in the political fight of his life against Jessica Cisneros, a political newcomer who is aiming to outflank him from the left.

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Cuellar and Granger, both powerful players on Capitol Hill, are the Texas incumbents most at risk of losing reelection on Tuesday, in what will be the first primary contest for members of Congress anywhere in the United States. Whether these districts’ voters opt to keep them in office or throw out their seniority, favoring ideological purity over congressional clout, will have sweeping consequences for Texans across the state.

While Cuellar and Granger serve in opposing parties, their races share many similarities. They are two of the four Texans on the House Appropriations Committee, arguably the most exclusive committee in all of Congress. With another member, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, set to retire at the end of 2020 and the fourth, U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, a target of Democrats in November, their defeats could impact the dollars coming to the state.

“Granger, Carter and Cuellar all work closely together and some people have questioned the appropriateness of their bipartisanship, but when you also want appropriations and your job is to provide for the entire state of Texas, it requires a certain amount of teamwork,” said Colin Strother, a Cuellar aide. “It is unfortunate that their effectiveness is being used against them.”

Appropriators control the federal government’s purse strings. Historically, they are the members best able to “bring home the bacon” in the form of infrastructure projects, disaster relief funding and every other type of federal spending. Senior members who chair subcommittees are known around the Hill as “cardinals,” a title which Cuellar is close to achieving. Granger, once a cardinal, is now the most powerful Republican on the committee. If control of the House flipped, she would be chairwoman.

Credit: Abby Livingston/The Texas Tribune
The back entrance of Omaha's Military Surplus, a store that has lost business due to the construction of the Panther Island project in Fort Worth.

But now both are in trouble. How much trouble is a matter of debate among strategists around the state who are quick to throw their arms up and admit they have no idea what impact the competitive Democratic presidential primary will have on these two districts.

Granger’s race was, in retrospect, a long time coming. The 12-term Forth Worth powerhouse has only faced nominal competition since both parties tried to recruit her in 1996, when she was a popular mayor. The 12th District encompasses Republican areas of Tarrant County, and extends out west into urban and exurban parts of Wise County and Parker County.

She spent her years on Capitol Hill accumulating clout and has earned a reputation as a quiet, behind-the-scenes operator. She leveraged that power in two distinct ways for the 12th District: defense spending and Panther Island. She is the greatest protector of the F-35 fighter plane, a controversial military project that is in part manufactured in her district. An expensive boondoggle to many outside of Fort Worth, its status — and ongoing Trump-era drama around its funding — is central to the city’s economic stability.

But Putnam’s camp, which includes the conservative group the Club for Growth, is running hard against her, centrally focused on Panther Island and her 2016 campaign criticism of President Donald Trump.

“It's clear Kay Granger is desperate to stay in office. Her supporters have deployed millions in attack ads against our campaign because they know her weakness is her record,” said Putnam campaign manager Karin Dyer. “Kay spent her career as a pro-choice moderate, is bad on securing the border, and even asked President Trump to drop out during the 2016 race. We have the momentum, and we're confident in a win on election night."

But despite Granger's call for Trump to end his campaign after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood recording, Trump endorsed her in the fall and has repeatedly provided her political cover at public events.

“Kay Granger is a strong conservative who has stood with President Trump and delivered results for her district,” said her political consultant, Keats Norfleet. “She’s fought to fund the wall, rebuild our military and create countless jobs and economic opportunities in North Texas.

“Her carpetbagging opponent only moved here three months ago to run for office, and his only record of public service is raising taxes — twice — on his local city council,” he added.

Panther Island has been the subject of negative press for years. Putnam’s campaign — and its allied outside groups — was merely the first to lead a concerted effort against her. The massive construction project will create an island within the Trinity River just north of downtown Fort Worth, and has come under heavy criticism for cost overruns and missed deadlines. But Granger’s biggest political problem is charges of nepotism, given that her son, J.D. Granger, has run the troubled project for much of its lifespan.

The warring camps' ad wars clutter the evening news and direct mail has piled up in the district’s Republican homes. Most observers consider Granger the favorite in the race, but only by a narrow margin. More cautious political players beg off predictions altogether.

As for Cuellar, his perch on the Appropriations Committee came up repeatedly as he campaigned with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently in Laredo. Cuellar touted several local projects whose funding, he said, were made possible by a Democratic majority — and his knowledge of the budget process. Strother, the Cuellar aide, estimated his boss has brought $3.3 billion in appropriations to the district, along with another $249 million in grants.

The committee's chairwoman, New York Rep. Nita Lowey, has also campaign with Cuellar in the district.

"Henry is such a valuable member of the Appropriations Committee," Lowey said. "I may be the chair, but he's the adviser. He understands it, and we are so thrilled to have him there."

Cisneros, a young attorney from Laredo, was recruited by Justice Democrats, the insurgent progressive group that backed the 2018 campaign of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.

Credit: Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi campaigns with U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar in Laredo.

She has tagged Cuellar as President Donald Trump's "favorite Democrat" while arguing he is too moderate for the solidly blue district and beholden to corporate interests. Cuellar counters that he knows the district well — and that it will not go for a "socialist" like Cisneros whose platform would kill oil-and-gas jobs across South Texas.

"It all comes down to, are we gonna reach as many voters as possible, right?” she said in the final weeks of the campaign. “We feel really good because the momentum that we've been able to build since June has been incredible.

In the homestretch, Cuellar and his allies have especially hammered Cisneros as a district newcomer. She was born and raised in Laredo but moved back last year to run after attending law school at the University of Texas in Austin and pursuing a legal fellowship in New York.

Cinseros has earned endorsements from a host of national progressive figures and groups, including presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as Ocasio-Cortez and Julián Castro, the former presidential contender, U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor. Cuellar, meanwhile, is touting a list of over 200 local endorsements, eager to provide a contrast with Cisneros' national support.

Texas is one of the hardest places in the country to oust a longtime federal incumbent. Campaigns generally start in earnest after the Christmas holidays, with early voting beginning only about six weeks later. If Granger and Cuellar find trouble on Tuesday night, incumbents in states to come will likely be on edge.

In Granger’s case, the lack of competitive GOP presidential primary could prove problematic. It’s widely assumed in Fort Worth that a smaller turnout would benefit Putnam. Moreover, there is anecdotal evidence that some moderate voters have tended to vote in past GOP primaries for state Rep. Charlie Geren as he has fended off Tea Party opponents. This time around, Geren is running uncontested, and the Democratic presidential primary might be a draw for some of these voters.

“The average person probably has a hard time remembering who represents them in Congress, let alone how long that person has been in office and what influence they have on Capitol Hill,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst who rates the competitiveness of races for Inside Elections.

“Longtime members are also caught emphasizing longevity and seniority in an institution that many voters are skeptical of,” he added. “Having a lot of experience in Congress doesn't matter much if voters don't think Congress is working for them.

The uncertainty ahead has set off anxiety for old political hands. It is not that far-fetched of a scenario to imagine Texas starting from square one next year in seniority on the Appropriations Committee, where experience matters. Such a scenario would put Texas at a disadvantage compared to other states for federal funding.

The Texas appropriators were key in 2017 in rallying the Congress behind sending disaster relief to Houston and other hurricane-stricken regions. Florida, for instance, is likely to have six appropriators next term, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida. Neither of the Texas senators serve on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“The reason these races are so important is that the committee is responsible for all discretionary spending a which is one-third of the overall federal budget,” said Tony Essalih, a lobbyist and former chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who served on the committee. “Discretionary spending is a Hobbesian competition for resources between the states and their respective members.”

But such a post does not always resonate back home. Culberson was one of the key members of the committee when it came to rallying a bipartisan alliance with the Florida delegation to bring disaster relief money to the two states and Puerto Rico after a rash of devastating storms in 2017. Voters threw him out of office a year later anyway.

In 2020, fury is still in the air. Government spending was once political gold for members of Congress. Now it is cause for suspicion.

And whether voters’ disgust dates back to the 2008 bailout or a torn-up road that is bleeding the life out of a longtime family business, voters could well direct it at at their own members on Tuesday.

Williams, the military surplus store owner, admits it’s a tough dilemma. The money Granger brought back to the district upended his family’s livelihood. But at the end of the day, he needs the federal government to complete that road out front. And that likely will not happen without Granger leading that one committee.

“Still thinking. Still undecided,” he said. “We were just talking about that yesterday, my wife and I. She said, ‘Which one?’

“And I don’t know yet. Politics makes for strange bedfellows,” he added. “At one point we were fighting the project, and now we want it to be finished, so we don’t really want to stir up who’s all involved in it.”

Patrick Svitek reported from Laredo.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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