Election night a mixed bag for state’s top business group

Four challengers backed by Texas Association of Business lost, but group sent strong message, analyst says.

The state’s main business lobbying group batted 0-4 during Tuesday’s primaries, in terms of its efforts to oust a handful of socially conservative Republican incumbents — whom it views as anti-business — from the state Legislature.

But primary night may not have been quite as big of a downer for the Texas Association of Business as that record implies.

The group went 2-1 against Gov. Greg Abbott, who tried to unseat three GOP House allies of business-friendly but retiring House Speaker Joe Straus. The Texas Association of Business endorsed all three of the lawmakers opposed by Abbott, and only one of them lost.

Political scientist Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said the Texas Association of Business sent a clear message through its increased political activity that it is serious about taking on incumbents if they repeatedly cross it.

“They still get something from signaling that they’re willing to make things more difficult for people, and make them pay a higher cost in time and stress, to hang onto their seat,” even though the four GOP challengers backed by the business group were defeated on Tuesday, Henson said.

The Texas Association of Business, long an influential voice at the Republican-controlled state Legislature, found itself unexpectedly playing defense through much of last year’s legislative session, as ascendant social conservatives in the GOP pushed measures — such as the so-called bathroom bill — that some business leaders said were bad for the state’s economy.

The organization vowed in the aftermath to become more politically proactive beginning with Tuesday’s primaries, and it spent about $195,000 on political donations and other election-related activity from late October 2017 through Feb. 25, according to its most recent campaign finance reports, compared with $55,000 during the comparable period four years ago.

The organization issued endorsements in about half of the 165 state House and Senate races on Tuesday’s ballots, with the vast majority going to sitting lawmakers seeking reelection.

Still, all four of the incumbents that the Texas Association of Business opted to oppose — Republican state Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood and Republican state House members Mike Lang of Granbury, Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg and Valoree Swanson of Spring — won anyway. The four averaged a grade of 54 out of 100 on the business group’s 2017 scorecard for business-friendly voting records, and Lang, Biedermann and Swanson belong to the Texas Freedom Caucus, a block of socially conservative state lawmakers.

Hall’s victory carries a particular sting for the Texas Association of Business, because Republican state Rep. Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale — who earned a 2017 grade of 94 from the group — gave up her seat to unsuccessfully challenge him.

In addition, two relatively high-scoring incumbents that the group endorsed — GOP state Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls and GOP state Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas — were defeated. Estes logged an 80 on the organization’s 2017 scorecard, while Villalba had a 94.

Chris Wallace, president of the Texas Association of Business, wasn’t available for comment Wednesday. Chief Executive Jeff Moseley said in a written statement that “numerous pro-business candidates were elected” Tuesday, although he added that the group knows it must “continue our efforts of focusing on the real issues facing Texas,” including jobs, taxes, education and transportation funding, and back candidates accordingly.

The organization declined to comment specifically on Tuesday’s results, saying it now is focusing on the May 22 run-offs and the November general elections.

Regardless, Henson noted that defeating entrenched incumbents is always a tall order, so it’s no surprise that the four challengers backed by the Texas Association of Business lost on Tuesday.

“It was a good night for incumbents,” he said. “You can look at almost anybody who endorsed in races and find that where they challenged incumbents, most of those were not successful.”

Abbott is a case in point. The governor, a Republican, took the unusual step of backing challengers to three GOP incumbent House members, but even he came out of Tuesday with a losing record, in terms of his endorsements of them.

Two of the three GOP House incumbents opposed by Abbott but supported by the Texas Association of Business — Sarah Davis of West University Place and Lyle Larson of San Antonio — won. A third, Wayne Faircloth of Galveston, was defeated.

Overall, Henson said, there were few clear winners or losers among the myriad interest groups that weighed in on Tuesday’s primary races. As for the Texas Association of Business, he said the group at least managed to send a message to candidates and incumbents that it will have to be reckoned with in future campaigns.

“I would guess the signal has been received,” Henson said. “Now the question is what the effect will be.”

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