Facing a Challenge From the Right, A GOP Senator Sets His Sights on the Middle

Note: This story originally appeared on The Quorum Report. Join us there daily for coverage of Texas politics and government. 

DALLAS – One of the most closely watched Texas Senate races could be a key test for the future of the Republican Party as a whole. Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, faces a very serious challenge from his right in the form of Don Huffines, a wealthy businessman who has pledged to spend around $5 million to try to unseat the longtime incumbent and chairman of the powerful Business and Commerce Committee. There is no Democrat in the race, so Carona could – as many in the GOP have done – make a hard right turn to get through his primary then pay no penalty for it in November. But, in a candid conversation at his office near SMU this past week, he made it clear he will not do that.


Carona as depicted by D Magazine: “The Last Republican.”

“The current practice in Republican politics which seems to be pandering to the far, far right has got to be reversed,” Carona said in some of his strongest language to date on the subject. He suggested that his battle plan is to win his primary against Huffines without pandering to the ultra-conservative wing of the GOP. In doing so, it seems he would like to demonstrate to other Republicans that a strong appeal with people he referred to as “mainstream conservatives” can be a winning strategy in Texas. “We have those folks who sometimes believe that you can build a bigger tent by moving further to the right and that’s simply mathematics that doesn’t work.”

Huffines’ campaign has thus far declined to arrange an interview but the Quorum Report team would still be happy to speak with him.

The challenger has flooded the district with negative mail pieces about Carona from the start. “They’re coming at about a clip of one piece every three or four days,” Carona said, pointing to a stack of them on his desk and laughing. One Carona found particularly humorous featured a picture of him giving a thumbs up to the fictional “Barack Obama Freeway,” which Huffines has seized on as a top issue.

A freeway name change was proposed by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, back in 2009 but Carona didn’t allow for a vote on the bill after polling members of his committee and finding out it lacked serious support. Still, Huffines has sent voters mail pieces like this one: A mockup of a letter from President Obama thanking Carona for his efforts. “You stood up for me against your fellow Republicans,” the fictional president wrote. “We almost got away with it!”


A mailer from the Don Huffines campaign.

Despite those antics, Carona said “I’m campaigning like I did when I first ran for the legislature” more than two decades ago. Carona has never lost a race and said “I certainly don’t want to close down my political career in Austin with a political defeat. We intend to win.”

Carona’s decision to aim for the middle does not mean he’s unwilling to be negative about Huffines. Things have gotten so nasty between the two candidates during some of their joint appearances that they’ve actually had to be separated, QR has been told.

At a recent forum in Dallas, Carona slammed Huffines for his business practices and the challenger shot right back in an exchange that was captured on video. Before a crowd of about 200 people, the incumbent said Huffines was extremely hypocritical to repeatedly say “I’m against all taxes.” Carona pointed out and the Dallas Morning News has investigated the fact that a centerpiece of Huffines’ real estate business model includes lobbying the legislature to create taxing districts.

“Apparently you don’t like taxes except for those taxes that you create,” Carona said. Huffines said that Carona is responsible for actually voting to approve the taxing districts in question. “I create cities before they’re cities,” Huffines said. “Everyone stands in line to live there.”

You can listen to Carona talk about his race against Huffines by clicking here.

Listen to Carona on the future of the Republican Party, as he sees it, by clicking here.

Copyright January 24, 2014, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission. 

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