Special election could set the tone for Texas march primary

A full-on proxy war is unfolding in East Texas for the open House seat vacated by expelled member Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City), with massive political figures and large consulting firms throwing their weight behind the two frontrunners.

Voters will cast ballots in the House District (HD) 2 race next Tuesday to decide who will fill the empty seat, though it’s likely that a runoff will be triggered between the top two vote-getters.

Slaton was ousted after it was revealed he had a sexual relationship with his intern.

The two frontrunners in the race are Jill Dutton, former head of the Van Zandt County Republican Women, and Brent Money, a former Greenville city councilman — both of whom have fundraised well into the six-figures. Other candidates include Heath Hyde, Doug Roszhart, Krista Schild, and the lone Democrat Kristen Washington.

On Monday, Dutton and Money rolled out a pair of significant new endorsements — former Gov. Rick Perry for Dutton and Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi for Money.

That comes on top of Money’s other notable endorsements, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Attorney General Ken Paxton, various legislators, and Texas Right to Life, among others. Both Cruz and Paxton use Axiom Strategies, the Kansas City-based firm run by Jeff Roe, which has a sizeable Texas footprint. Axiom represents a growing number of primary challengers against Texas House incumbents.

Dutton, meanwhile, has support from Congressman Lance Gooden (R-TX-05), a group of leadership-aligned House Republicans, Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) PAC, and Texas Alliance for Life.

TLR was accused by Paxton’s defense team of orchestrating the impeachment with the House, a claim the group has denied. TLR backed one of Paxton’s opponents, Eva Guzman, in the 2022 primary.

Money has said he would’ve voted against impeachment while Dutton said that she “respect[s] the process in both the House and the Senate,” but added that she did not watch the hearing and “doesn’t have all the information.”

Dutton’s consulting firm is Murphy Nasica, the long-existent Texas firm started by Craig Murphy, which also consults for Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont).

Notable endorsements for other candidates include the Texas Farm Bureau for Hyde and state Rep. Vikki Goodwin (D-Austin) for Washington.

In recent days, Donald Trump has become an issue in the race.

The Dutton campaign ran a digital ad attacking Money for previous statements made criticizing the former president for his COVID-19 policies. Last year, Money attributed the 2020 loss to those policies and said it should preclude Trump from being the GOP nominee in 2024.

The ad also shows a pre-2016 election interview on The Blaze in which Money called Trump “a creep” in relation to the Hollywood Access tapes published before the election.

Money responded on Facebook, saying, “This was from before [Trump] ever took office. Since then, President Trump is in many ways the most conservative President we’ve ever had, proving me wrong in my evaluation of him prior to his election.”

“In 2020, I donated to his campaign and voted for him. I expect that he will be the nominee in 2024, and I will gladly support him again.”

On top of that, extra spice was tossed into the HD 2 dynamic when Defend Texas Liberty (DTL) — the embattled conservative group in the throes of controversy after right-wing gadfly and antisemitic commentator Nick Fuentes was photographed going into its Fort Worth office — waded into the race against Dutton.

A mailpiece paid for by DTL and sent to HD 2 households equated Dutton with Democrat Beto O’Rourke, saying that two fundraiser hosts for Dutton’s campaign also donated to O’Rourke’s gubernatorial bid against Gov. Greg Abbott — a claim that was made without details.

DTL supported Abbott’s primary opponent Don Huffines last year and dumped millions of dollars into the unsuccessful challenge, but then spent lots of money against O’Rourke in the general election.

The mailer received a response from Dutton’s camp when Matt Brownfield of Murphy Nasica rejoined, “The disgraced Defend Texas Liberty is now attacking conservative Jill Dutton in the HD 2 Special Election. This PAC never condemned former Rep. Bryan Slaton after he was expelled from the Texas House unanimously for seducing his 19[-year-old] intern while she was intoxicated.”

Slaton was backed substantially by DTL until his scandal.

In the latest finance reports, filed Tuesday, Money reported $35,000 in contributions from DTL — over half of his total raised during the reporting period.

Dutton reported $234,000 raised, most of which came from TLR and the Associated Republicans of Texas, which has made the HD 2 race a priority.

While those two are the focal points of the race, Hyde has drawn some opposition too. The American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice group, took aim at Hyde over the issue after he campaigned as the one anti-voucher candidate in the race.

Both Dutton and Money support the governor’s preferred mechanism of education savings accounts. Money said he wants to see them apply universal eligibility, while Dutton said she believes the program needs some kind of hold-harmless or bracketing provision for rural districts.

Hyde is against the concept in its entirety.

The candidates have varying stances on policy that they’ve campaigned on throughout the race. 

The wildcard to watch in the race is Washington, the Democratic candidate, who, while it may be unlikely, could play spoiler in setting up a runoff.

The district is heavily red. By coalescing around one candidate while the GOP votes are split between the other five, the Democrats in HD 2 are hoping they can secure one of the two runoff spots.

Early voting ends on Friday, November 3 and Election Day is Tuesday, November 7.

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