Across Texas, insurgent Republicans who rode Tea Party anger to Austin are now facing challenges themselves. That’s the dynamic in Tarrant County, where state Rep. Jonathan Stickland and challenger Scott Fisher are racing toward Tuesday's primary.
At the heart of the dispute are differences in philosophy and personality.
Stickland doesn’t wear his philosophy of government on his sleeve. He wears it on the front of his T-shirt.
“More freedom and less government,” it says.
“When the government is big, the individual is small,” Stickland says. “I really believe in people, and I believe when the government comes in and adds red tape to anything it messes up the system.”
The 32-year-old oil and gas consultant first ran for office in the district that includes Hurst, Euless and Bedford four years ago. He says he’s kept his promise to do everything he could do limit the government’s influence on people’s lives.
“This isn’t a go along to get along type of situation,” Stickland says. “There are serious implications on decisions that are being made over the next couple of years, and we need conservative warriors who’re going to go down there and do that.”
Stickland has a reputation as something of a bomb thrower in Austin. That’s earned him praise from Tea Party groups and Empower Texans, which supports ultra-conservative candidates and has funded his campaign generously. It also means a thin file of bills introduced and passed.
“The thing that I’ve really hung my hat on as a legislator is not just passing bills. I’ve been concerned with stopping bad legislation,” Stickland says. “I believe that before we get back to constitutional role of government we’ve got to stop the ship that’s sailing down and out of control.”
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones says Stickland may well be the member that House leadership would most like to see lose his primary challenge.
“The level of irritation Stickland provides the leadership team and many members of the Austin lobby is even greater just due to his more enhanced political style and greater presence.”
Scott Fisher is the pastor of a Nazarene church in Euless and a former spokesman for Texas Christian Coalition. He also chairs the state’s juvenile justice commission and served on the board of the Tarrant County Hospital District.
Fisher says true conservatives believe government should help care for society’s most at risk members – and do it responsibly, without violating their values.
“The word conservative has been hijacked by libertarianism,” he says. “There are conservative Republicans, and there are libertarians who have embraced Republicanism to gain access to the mainstream.”
Fisher says there are some things he would never compromise on, like abortion. But he says he wants to get things done.
“If 100 percent is not possible, do what you can to get the 90,” Fisher says. “And then we’ll work on that other 10 in steps.”
There’s been a lot of outside interest and a lot of outside money in this race. Both sides have advertised themselves as the true conservative in the race. Both have accused the other of going negative.
In television ads, Fisher has attacked Stickland’s public safety record, going after him for votes that would have limited police powers. In mailers, he’s raised questions about online posts Stickland made talking about smoking pot, asking for advice on beating a drug test and saying that rape does not exist in marriage.
Stickland has apologized for the comments, and says they reflect the teenager he used to be, and not the man he is today.
Stickland has launched ads saying that Fisher called for Texas to expand Medicaid – a key provision of the Affordable Care Act – as a board member for the public hospital district in Fort Worth. Politifact investigated and gave that claim its worst “Pants on Fire” rating, calling it “incorrect and ridiculous.”
When it comes down to it, the question for voters in eastern Tarrant County may be less about who is the true conservative, and more about which kind of conservative they want to represent them.