The March primary race to decide the GOP candidate for House District 23 in November’s General Election pits a second-term incumbent against a well-funded political newcomer endorsed by the state’s powerful governor.
Mayes Middleton, a Chambers County oilman with deep connections in some of Texas’ most conservative activist groups, has set himself up as a champion of big conservative issues, as an ally of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and an outsider above the influence of Austin lobbyists.
Wayne Faircloth, who four years ago became the first Republican to represent Galveston in Austin since Reconstruction, has positioned himself as the candidate who’ll put local issues above party politics.
With less than a month to go until Election Day, both men say they have the strategy to win the Republican nomination.
Faircloth is not a legislator who frequents the microphone on the statehouse floor, or who makes many grandstanding proclamations. In the past eight months, though, he said he has felt targeted for his performance in Austin — which he defends.
“The idea that I’m pushing anyone’s agenda other than my own district didn’t occur to me,” Faircloth said. “I just see myself as representing the people of my district and sometimes that’s going to put me on the other side of a lot of people.”
Although he has never run for office, Middleton has been a presence in the legislature as a donor and policy advocate. He said he was inspired to run after watching the performance of Republicans during the most recent legislative session.
“I was up there in the session a lot,” Middleton said. “Watching that work was profoundly disappointing to see. Really, what they were doing was wanting to be liked and loved.”
Middleton calls lawmakers like Faircloth, who he argues were unwilling or unable to vocally push conservative legislation in the capital, ‘liberal Republicans.”
Ever since Middleton announced his candidacy in June, his run against Faircloth has put House District 23 in the Texas political spotlight. In January, Gov. Greg Abbott endorsed Middleton — one of a handful of cases this year in which the governor has sought to replace incumbents in his own party.
Abbott’s endorsements follow a contentious legislative session during which some of his top proposals were derailed by disagreement among Republicans. While Abbott’s proposals were mostly supported by the Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Joe Straus, some items died in the House of Representatives.
Abbott seems to have targeted legislators that slighted him, or worked against his priorities.
For Faircloth, Abbott’s ire could stem from several things. Straus held a fundraiser for Faircloth in September. That same month, during a campaign forum in Chambers County, Faircloth said Abbott made appointments to some state positions based on campaign donations.
While he later said he apologized to the governor for the comment, it still was the topic of attacks by Faircloth’s critics.
Middleton is closely associated with some of the most conservative advocacy groups in Texas politics. He is one of only four donors that have given to Empower Texans in the past year, and was board member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, founded in 1989 as a school-reform group with a focus of pushing for vouchers.
Middleton said he didn’t know whether he would join the far-right faction of House Republicans, the House Freedom Caucus, but that he was politically aligned with the group.
“I don’t care whose name is on it, as long it’s good conservative policy,” he said.
In recent weeks, Middleton has particularly focused his campaign on fighting for property tax reform, which coincides with a new plan introduced by Abbott that would put low caps on how much cities can raise property taxes in a given year without local voter approval.
The proposal is more ambitious than a tax cap that was proposed, and failed, during the session. A more conservative and committed group could pass a cap on property tax increases, Middleton said.
“People are sick of runaway property taxes,” he said. “We’ve got to have ironclad limits on it.”
He called Abbott’s proposal “very reasonable.”
City and county leaders worked against the tax cap proposed last session because it would have limited their ability to raise money, but allowed the legislature to saddle them with new unfunded mandates. Abbott’s new proposal would prohibit that.
Faircloth said he had advocated for limiting unfunded mandates before the governor took up the issue.
“The House passed legislation to no longer pass on unfunded mandates,” he said, adding that the bill died in the Senate.
“You tell me who’s serious about tax reform,” he said.
It’s on that issue and others that Faircloth is staking his campaign. He argues he’s able to communicate local governments’ wishes to other state officials to swing deals that benefit his district.
He takes credit, for instance, for getting funding approved for the University of Texas Medical Branch and Galveston College in recent years and for securing money that paid for massive reconstruction projects that extended Galveston’s beaches.
Middleton has put pressure on Faircloth since before the legislative session ended last summer. He pumped more than $800,000 into the primary race, and has recently been airing television and radio ads.
Middleton has financed the campaign mostly with his own money, and said he has made a point of not accepting campaign donations. That’s one potential reason Faircloth has been able to close a funding gap with Middleton and reported nearly double the contributions that Middleton has received.
Faircloth also received a noticeable bump in local accolades just ahead of the election. He was named the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Galvestonian of the Year last month, for example.
A month after that, Faircloth received a proclamation from the city of Galveston — which touted the same local projects he’s been highlighting in his campaigning.
Texas House District 23 includes Galveston, La Marque, Texas City and the Bolivar Peninsula, as well as all of Chambers County.
Early voting starts Feb. 20. Election Day is March 6. The winner of the primary race will face Democrat Amanda Jamrok, a 25-year-old hospital site manager from Galveston, in November’s General Election.