Staff report, with contribution from Katerina Barton
As a contentious presidential primary moves into Texas for Super Tuesday next week, local Republicans are facing a possible divide between two factions of the Hays County GOP.
Primary elections for local Republican Party chair, and for seats on the party’s executive committee – known as precinct chairs – are up for grabs between two very different and sometimes hostile groups, both of which describe themselves as the true conservatives.
For party chair, the current head of the Kyle Buda Republican Group, Alice Chisholm, is challenging incumbent county chair Russell Hayter, also from the Buda-Kyle area, in a race that echoes some of the national debate about establishment vs. anti-establishment Republicans, and includes some of the same sharp language.
An endorsement on Chisholm’s website asserts there’s a “huge divide in the Hays County Republican Party, and it’s one that we must cure if we intend to keep Hays County red. Conservative Republicans are becoming disenchanted with the current regime, and our plan for the future starts with Alice Chisholm.”
That quote is from Sam Brannon, a leading member of the Constitutional Republicans of Hays County and a frequent critic of the Republicans on the Hays County Commissioners Court. Brannon lost a bid for a spot on the Court four years ago, and once ran a losing race for congress.
However, incumbent Hayter says he does not see the divide.
“Anytime there’s two people running for election there’s going to be some sort of divide, so I don’t think it’s necessarily anything unusual. There are a lot of people that are very interested in getting involved in the Republican party … So I’m not surprised that a lot of people have stepped up to run for different positions. We welcome that,” Hayter said to the Hays Free Press.
Hayter is endorsed for re-election by a list of Republican leaders, including both Republican U.S. representatives with constituents in Hays County, a state senator, state representative, and all Republican members of the Hays County Commissioner’s Court.
Some of these, such as State Senator Donna Campbell, first came to power as anti-establishment or Tea Party candidates, complaining that Republican incumbents weren’t conservative enough.
On her campaign website, Chisholm, who has also served as chair of Hays Republican County Women, describes Hayter as a “puppet” of establishment Republicans who are running roughshod over grassroots conservatives.
Chisholm is also a co-founder of the Constitutional Republicans.
Pct. 3 Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, who represents Wimberley and parts of San Marcos, is among the many elected Republicans endorsing Hayter over Chisholm, and he sees it differently.
“He’s done a great job in helping to develop and strengthen the Republican Party here in Hays County and promoting the principles and the values that we stand for,” Conley told the Hays Free Press.
Conley’s opponent in the Republican primary (no Democrat filed for the seat) is Rob Roark, who has drawn much of his support from the same Constitutional Republican base and other party members.
The split in the county chair race can be seen up and down the ballot, and sparked a nearly unprecedented number of contested races for the normally sleepy, insider-position of precinct chair.
Similar to the county chair, precinct chairs serve predominantly as a party functionary and advocates on a neighborhood level.
Hays County has 49 precincts, and, in this primary, 44 Republican candidates are running for precinct chair. Ten of those precincts have no one running, while 18 have multiple candidates running, including one precinct with three candidates.
On the other side of the ballot, the Democrats have less than half the number of candidates running for precinct chairs and none of the positions are contested.
Some of the anti-establishment Republicans have formed a new group, Hays RightPAC.
Among the postings on the group’s website is one that claims the meaning of the word conservative is being diluted and the party “torn apart” by “RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), liberal or establishment Republicans” who vote based on “their deep networks of special interests” and prevent any “true Conservative” initiatives.
Conley has a different take, and points to his own support for the aggressively conservative Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz of Texas.
He says it is really a choice between getting things done in a growing county or letting ideological purity create dysfunction.
“I think the word conservative has been really misinterpreted and abused by a handful of people in this county and I believe they put that out there, if you will, to try to confuse people … Russell (Hayter) is a very conservative person and is doing a fine job of promoting our principles and our values,” Conley said.
Conley said he and his supporters believe in limited government and the appropriate role of government in Hays County.
“We are reflecting conservative values across Hays County,” Conley said.
“We are providing high levels of public safety, planning and building the infrastructure needed for a growing community, and promoting job growth and economic development,” Conley added. “To me, this is a conservative, limited role of government …”
The Hays Free Press tried to contact Chisholm for comment but was unable to reach her before press time.