- By Ken Herman American-Statesman Staff
If this had been speed dating — and it kind of was — Jenifer Sarver’s pickup lines would have been a turnoff.
The place was the Texas Disposal Systems Exotic Game Ranch in Creedmoor. The event was a forum featuring 13 of the 18 GOP candidates vying for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, who is retiring.
The politically mandatory thing for all the candidates to say was some version of “I love Trump.” But Sarver went elsewhere when fellow candidate Anthony White inquired about that.
“There’s a nasty little rumor going around that I voted for Hillary Clinton,” Sarver said, “and it’s true. It’s not a rumor because I wrote about it and told people about it.”
Just then, some of the dead animal heads on the walls turned toward Sarver with looks of shocked disbelief.
Sarver, whose GOP bona fides include stints as an aide to then-Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and a Commerce Department official in the George W. Bush administration, was for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2016 GOP presidential race.
“But when it came down to it, I couldn’t support candidate Trump,” Sarver said. “As a woman, I couldn’t do it. But let me tell you this: He’s the president of the United States. He’s the leader of the party, and I’m proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with him when he’s governing with conservative principles.
“But when he’s uncivil and incivil and treats people with disrespect, I’m going to call that out. I would call that out of anybody on this stage and with Democrats,” Sarver said, adding, “One of the biggest problems we face is the way that we talk to one another.”
She also said, “It’s not OK to tear people down and divide people based on their skin color, their nation of origin, their sexual orientation or whatever they may believe for their faith. I’m a strong Christian, but I know that I can’t implement my views on you.”
White, the candidate who asked Sarver about her 2016 presidential vote, responded with this defense of our peculiar president: “Trump is from New York. His ways are a little different. It’s in your face. ‘How ya doin’?’ OK? That’s the way it is in New York. But he gets things done because he’s not a politician, and neither am I.”
The two-hour forum included lots of candidate chest-thumping about supporting Donald Trump. State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, asked Chip Roy, former chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz, about Cruz’s nonendorsement of Trump at the 2016 GOP convention.
“What would you say to reassure Hill Country voters that you, too, wouldn’t abandon President Trump and refuse to support his agenda … ?” Isaac asked Roy.
Roy said he’s been “working closely to support President Trump” and mentioned that his wife had helped with the Trump transition.
Other candidates declared their fealty to Trump:
• “I went to work as a volunteer for Donald Trump before the Texas primary. I didn’t see many of these (other candidates on the stage) there,” Al Poteet said.
• “I applaud the work of President Trump and the Congress to pass the tax cuts because many of us are seeing that in our checks this week,” Susan Narvaiz said.
• Ryan Krause signaled his simpatico with Trump thusly: “I think the greatest threat to our national security is CNN.”
Sarver acknowledged that Trump “was elected to be a disrupter, and he has been a very effective disrupter. There are many things that have happened in Washington that are good.” But she expressed concern about “disruption for the sake of disruption.”
“It’s not a popular primary message to tell you that I want to work with the other side, but I think it’s necessary,” Sarver said.
Her can’t-we-get-along proposal drew why-should-we pushback from candidate Matt McCall: “From my perspective, the communist and socialist parties kind of collapsed themselves in the 1920s and joined the Democrats. … Now we have power in the White House and both branches of the Legislature, and didn’t we do that so we can accomplish what our values are instead of compromising and getting along with them?”
Sarver said she’s concerned about the GOP “because I see a party that’s aging and white, and that’s not the future of our country. … We have a tone that is shutting people out. Young people are not interested in joining our party. Women are leaving our party in droves. And if you look out over this audience it’s a very white crowd here tonight. And it’s a pretty white group of people that are running as well.”
Her response drew silence, then this from McCall: “We shouldn’t be getting along with the side that wants to kill babies.” He also noted, “Married women vote Republican.”
“We don’t have a problem with women. We have a problem that people aren’t getting married in this country,” McCall said. “In our personal lives, we need to get back to the Lord Jesus.”
Sarver said she is pro-life and believes “God hates abortion” and called for preventing abortion via improved sex education and access to contraceptives. One person applauded that response.
Sarver’s closing comments nodded to the reality in the room: “I’ve said some things tonight that I know you don’t agree with because I didn’t get any clapping. But I’m not a politician. I’m not somebody that’s going to tell you exactly what you want to hear.”
If the goal on this Thursday night was to get votes in the room, Sarver probably failed. But if her goal was to distinguish herself in a crowded field, it was mission most definitely accomplished.
Could that get her into the inevitable runoff? Probably a long shot. And if she made the runoff, could she win it? Probably an even longer shot.
But Sarver’s candidacy will have been a success if she causes a GOP voter or two or three to reflect on the important message she’s bringing about the party’s present and future.