Texas GOP chair race features contentious rematch

Now that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has bowed out of the presidential race — returning the delegate selection process to irrelevancy — the battle over who will lead the Republican Party of Texas will take top billing this week at the state GOP convention in Dallas.

Party Chairman Tom Mechler, appointed last year to fill a vacancy by the party’s executive committee, is seeking to be elected by the more than 7,000 delegates who will attend and is facing an aggressive challenge from Jared Woodfill, the Harris County GOP chairman until he lost a re-election bid in 2014.

Woodfill, a personal injury lawyer, has sought to portray the race in the familiar outsider-vs.-insider terms, but Mechler and some observers have rejected that narrative.

“Everybody wants to be the chairman. Everybody has had some experience as chairman or vice chairman or county chairman,” said Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based national GOP strategist who has worked for tea party-aligned candidates. “It’s a fight between very active Republicans who are fairly well known around the state.”

The difference between Woodfill and Mechler has more to do with style than substance, said Steinhauser, a Travis County delegate who said he is unaligned in the race. Mechler is a fiscal and social conservative, he said, but wants to “also build the party and do some minority outreach.”

Woodfill wants to focus on the party’s more conservative wing. He gained attention last year for his role in the campaign that defeated the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which would have created nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender people and allowed transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice.

“Jared is running pretty clearly because he believes that things like the bathroom ordinance should be top of the list for things to focus on,” Steinhauser said.

The race is something of a rematch of the March 2015 vote in which a majority of the 62-member State Republican Executive Committee named Mechler the interim replacement for Steve Munisteri, who left to assist U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s now-defunct presidential campaign. He bested Woodfill and two other candidates.

Mechler, who has an engineering background and works as a consultant for oil and gas companies, criticized Woodfill for being a personal injury trial lawyer, the natural enemy of the so-called tort reform measures that Texas Republicans have credited with making the state business-friendly.

Although Woodfill has tried to cast Mechler as part of the establishment, the chairman isn’t shying away from the presidential candidate that the national GOP establishment has spent months resisting, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.

Asked why he supported Trump given the candidate’s history of comments alienating Latinos and women, groups Mechler has tried to bring into the Texas GOP fold, he said, “I think that candidates, when they run for nominations, take one position and frequently come back closer to the mainstream when it comes to the general. So I would expect some modification in some of that rhetoric in the future.”

“Our party will support our nominee, period. There’s not even a question about it,” Mechler said. “Any Republican nominee is light years beyond Hillary Clinton.”

Woodfill did not respond to interview requests sent to his campaign and law office Friday and Monday.

High-profile Texas Republican officeholders such as Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have not taken sides in the race.

Also keeping his powder dry is Robert Morrow, the Travis County GOP chairman-elect and conspiracy theorist whose racist, sexist and profane social media posts made international headlines after his surprise victory March 1.

Morrow, who declined to endorse Woodfill or Mechler, said Monday that he has no plans to attend the convention. If he went to Dallas, Morrow would have no official role because he won’t be sworn in until June and was rejected by Republicans in his precinct in his bid to become a delegate.

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