Will a tea party challenge work in Trump’s GOP? Kay Granger is going to find out

Club for Growth backs challenger to veteran House appropriator

Texas GOP Rep. Kay Granger won a chocolate cake at a church auction Thursday in Azle, Texas, amid her competitive primary race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Texas GOP Rep. Kay Granger won a chocolate cake at a church auction Thursday in Azle, Texas, amid her competitive primary race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 22, 2020 at 11:30am

AZLE, Texas — Rep. Kay Granger wanted to win. Cash in hand, she kept raising her bid as the auctioneer at Silver Creek United Methodist Church rattled off prices for a chocolate cake.

The Texas Republican eventually paid $220 for the cake, leaving a candidate forum here Thursday night with a wave to the crowd after she collected her dessert. Her primary opponent, former technology executive Chris Putnam, did not bid on the cakes, which were auctioned off between candidate speeches to raise money for the church.

But a different kind of spending — the hundreds of billions negotiated annually between the White House and congressional Democrats and Republicans — is very much the focus of his Republican primary challenge to Granger in the Forth Worth-area 12th District. The race is reminiscent of tea party primary challenges from the last decade, with an insurgent hopeful taking on a longtime incumbent and railing against government spending.

But Putnam could have one problem: The GOP isn’t the tea party. It’s Donald Trump’s party now.

The president has endorsed Granger, which she’s touting in television ads and flyers. Trump’s backing helped her win over Frank Zamarron, a 53-year-old truck repair shop manager from Parker County, who attended the forum Thursday. With all of the negative ads he’s seen, Zamarron said he might have voted against Granger otherwise.

“If Trump’s for her, I’m for her,” he said. 

Still, Putnam and his allies believe a small government, anti-incumbent message will hit home in Fort Worth, where cranes hang over unfinished bridges as reminders of government projects gone wrong. Putnam, whose campaign slogan is “Make America Texas,” also says Granger has not backed Trump enough.

“People here know that she’s not a Trump person,” Putnam said in a brief interview at a Friday night rally in Fort Worth.

All about the money

First elected in 1996 after serving as mayor of Fort Worth, Granger is the senior-most GOP woman in the House and the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, placing her at the center of spending negotiations. Her perch made her a top target for the Club for Growth, which advocates low taxes and low spending and has spent nearly $1 million against her ahead of the March 3 primary.

In an interview Friday night after a meet-and-greet in North Richland Hills, Granger said criticism of her role in government spending is “absurd.”

“I’m an appropriator. That’s what we do,” she said.

Granger has negotiated deals that increased spending levels, but so have Trump administration officials, and Trump signed them into law. So it’s not clear if an anti-spending message still works in GOP primaries.

“Its tough to make that case because Trump’s the one doing the spending right now,” one Republican strategist said. “I would be skeptical that any primary message works besides ‘Somebody’s not sufficiently Trumpy.’”

Putnam acknowledged that voters may not be as concerned about deficits when the economy is doing well. But he still believes it’s an issue they care about.

“If you’ve lived through enough economies, you know, there’s always a day of reckoning, and there will be one,” Putnam said.

Chris Putnam, Granger‘s primary challenger in Texas’ 12th District, speaks during a candidate forum in Azle on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Granger’s supporters say her role overseeing government spending has helped the area. They point to defense contracts that have benefited some of the district’s major employers, such as Lockheed Martin. Her work in Congress gave one potential Putnam supporter pause.

Bob Simms, a self-described “term limits guy,” said before Thursday’s candidate forum that he hadn’t yet decided between Granger and Putnam.

“It’s tough because Kay has been there a long time. She has a lot of power. She’s helped Fort Worth and Dallas with military contracts,” said Sims, 75, who lives in Parker County. “But then again, it’s time for new blood. It’s a hard decision.”

Plagued project

Putnam is hoping to appeal to people like Simms, who are wary of longtime politicians. He’s also arguing that Granger hasn’t done right by the district. 

Putnam says local law enforcement officials, frustrated by inaction on immigration and border security, urged him to challenge Granger. He’s a former councilmember in Colleyville, which is outside the 12th District, but he has moved into the district, according to The Texas Tribune.

A key point of evidence in Putnam’s case against Granger, and government spending more broadly, is the beleaguered Panther Island Central City Flood Project.

The Fort Worth project, which will reportedly cost $1.2 billion, involves diverting water from the Trinity River to run under three bridges to control floods and develop a waterfront. Congress first authorized $526 million in 2016, but the project has struggled since to secure federal funding. So the bridges are still under construction, with just dirt beneath them instead of water.

Construction of bridges as part of the Panther Island project. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Granger is one of the project’s champions. Her son used to lead it, but his role was recently narrowed. Donna Hemsey of Azle said she was supporting Putnam mainly because of the Panther Island project.

“There’s just too much nepotism,” the 73-year-old Hemsey said.

Granger said in an interview she would keep fighting for the project: “I won’t give up.”

On defense

Granger has been on defense over Panther Island and a range of issues, largely because of the amount of outside spending in the race. The Club for Growth and an allied PAC have spent more than $2.1 million against her. The spending prompted other outside groups, including the Congressional Leadership Fund and Winning for Women, to jump into the race on Granger’s behalf, spending a combined $1.3 million.

Granger has a financial advantage herself in the final stretch of the primary after stepping up her fundraising. Her campaign had $705,000 on hand as of Feb. 12, according to pre-primary disclosures. Putnam, who has loaned his campaign $300,000, had $167,000 left in his campaign account.

“I’ve never been in a race like this one,” Granger told supporters at Friday’s meet-and-greet. Seemingly referring to the onslaught of negative ads, she added, “Don’t believe that stuff.”

One ad featured a 2007 video of Granger calling herself a “pro-choice Republican.” She has since gotten the backing of national anti-abortion groups including Susan B. Anthony List and National Right to Life. Texas Right to Life has endorsed Putnam.

Virginia Petrey, 70, said she reached out to Granger’s office after seeing the abortion ad and received a letter detailing Granger’s positions on the issue. Petrey and her husband, Clint, are backing Granger, and they made sure to get one of her yard signs at Thursday’s forum.

Clint and Virginia Petrey talk with Granger at the candidate forum in Azle, Texas, on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“We believe she is pro-life like she says she is,” said Petrey, a former postmaster from Dennis. “At one time, Mr. Trump was pro-choice. She may have been way back there, but she is pro-life.”

Granger’s views on Trump have also changed. In 2016, she said Trump’s comments questioning whether Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain was a war hero were “disgusting.” She also called on Trump to step aside as the GOP nominee  after an “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced showing him describing sexual assaults on women.

Granger said she supports Trump and has worked closely with him on funding for the military and border security, his signature issue.

“Our economy’s better, more people are at work,” Granger said. “There’s so many successes there.”

Trump remains popular in Granger’s district, which he won by 30 points in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the general election there Solid Republican.

Putnam cited the district’s Republican lean when explaining why he decided to run here, arguing that Granger doesn’t adequately represent people in the district who are fiscally and socially conservative.

But his three-minute pitch at Thursday’s forum here still couldn’t convince Simms, the undecided voter who backs term limits for politicians.  

“My [support for] term limits tells me to vote for the new guy, but then I’ve got a son that works at Lockheed,” Simms said after the forum. “I don’t know.”