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U.S. Rep. Kay Granger’s legacy looms in race to replace her

 The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, 2021.
Eric Lee
The Texas Tribune
The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, 2021.

WASHINGTON — In the Republican primary to succeed Rep. Kay Granger in Congress, a contest is brewing between the business-minded pragmatism the 14-term congresswoman was known for and the crusading cultural conservatism that has come to redefine the Republican Party.

Of the five Republicans and two Democrats who have stepped forward to replace Granger, Texas House Republican Caucus chair Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, is the favorite of the district’s local political and business leaders. But another Republican, business owner John O’Shea also of Fort Worth, has the backing of Attorney General Ken Paxton — whom he refers to as a close personal friend.

Paxton is on a tear to take down all of the Texas House Republicans who voted to impeach him this summer. Goldman was among those members, and it remains a major issue for O’Shea, who is fiercely critical of how the impeachment was conducted.

Goldman may have a lead in fundraising and endorsements in the race. But in recent years parts of the district have shown increasing interest and support for more hard-line conservatives, such as the 2022 election of Tarrant County Judge Tim O’Hare, who won his primary over former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price after accusing her of not being conservative enough.

“I truly think that this election is one between the current direction we're heading, which to me appears to be full blown cultural neo-Marxism in an authoritarian manner, or we get back to our constitutional roots,” O’Shea said.

Goldman did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

A rare opening

Granger — who has not endorsed in the race to replace her and did not respond to numerous attempts to contact her — announced she will retire from Congress after this term, capping a career representing the district since 1997. She has been a formidable force in Washington, leading the Texas Republican delegation in the U.S. House as its most senior member, chairing the House Appropriations Committee and earning profound respect across the delegation and Congress for her willingness to work across the aisle.

She has been a fixture in the city, previously serving as mayor and securing millions of dollars for the local defense industry and public infrastructure.

With Congress growing increasingly divided and new members often using their office as a platform to gain social media attention, some of Fort Worth’s local leaders say they’re hoping to replace Granger with a serious lawmaker in her same mold.

As the first Republican woman from Texas in Congress, Granger “had every opportunity to be a talking head” on cable news and create a name for herself, said Mattie Parker, the city’s mayor. Parker worked for Granger as her district director and campaign manager. “But it was very intentional. She chose not to do that. She was there to do the work on behalf of her district.”

Parker is backing Goldman and said she’s confident about his prospects. He has built up strong relationships with key stakeholders in the city and is emulating the kind of seriousness Granger was known for, she said.

She also said he’s a proven conservative. He backed legislation to harden the border, lower property taxes and limit abortion access. He voted more conservatively than a majority of Texas House Republicans in 2023.

“He will be a serious member of Congress that people will enjoy working with on both sides of the aisle,” Parker said. “And he will also try to follow in the footsteps of Congressman Granger and the interests that are best for CD 12.”

If O’Shea won, he said he would take the office in a different direction than Granger on some of her biggest priorities. While Granger has been an ardent supporter of Ukraine, O’Shea regrets the U.S. getting involved in the first place and hopes for a diplomatic solution that can free up military resources to counter China.

O’Shea said he doesn’t see himself as a flamethrower, per se, but he does admire some of the biggest disruptors in the House Republican conference. He cites U.S. Rep. Chip Roy — a deeply principled, far-right congressman who isn’t afraid to stall business if he feels something is wrong — as one of his biggest inspirations, adding that he values “pursuing and trying to advocate the truth, regardless of the personal consequences.”

He most closely aligns with the House Freedom Caucus and said he would seriously consider joining if invited.

O’Shea said he respects a lot of the work Granger has done for the district, including its defense base and the Panther Island project, though he had misgivings about her son’s involvement. Granger’s son, JD Granger, spearheaded the development and flood control project, which received millions in federal funding — and scrutiny for the mother-son pair. JD Granger stepped down from the project in 2022.

Still, he could not stomach Granger’s votes to pass appropriations packages that continued to expand federal spending amid a ballooning national debt and her stand against conservative firebreather Jim Jordan as House Speaker.

O’Shea also remains a staunch Paxton defender. Though he admits Paxton is not perfect, he was vehemently opposed to the state House’s approach to impeachment, which he said was done in secret and went against the will of the voters. Paxton himself has singled out Goldman, telling voters that Goldman whipped votes to impeach on the House floor.

“I don’t think you guys should promote this guy,” Paxton said at a campaign event for O’Shea.

The House “conducted a secret investigation without witnesses under oath and spent taxpayer money in a star-chamber process more fitting the former Soviet Union than Texas. You better believe it’s an issue for me,” O’Shea said in a text message.

Other Republicans running in the primary include Army veteran Clint Dorris, business owner and engineer Shellie Gardner, and retiree Anne Henley. Dorris is running on his national security experience, including in the U.S. Space Force, to tackle issues such as the border and China, he told The Dallas Morning News. Dorris did not respond to a request for an interview. Gardner said in a recent interview that she hopes to bring her business acumen to cut government spending. Henley does not have any public campaign presence online.

None of them have the levels of backing Goldman and O’Shea have.

Goldman is a close ally of Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan and has a long list of endorsements, including former Gov. Rick Perry and all of the district’s Republican state senators.

He has extensive experience in fundraising, having worked for years on Republican campaigns. Like Granger, Goldman enjoys the support of the Fort Worth business community, which his family has been a part of running a gourmet food and wine store. His campaign announced raising over $500,000 in just over two weeks after officially launching. He raised nearly $1.1 million in 2023, according to FEC filings.

O’Shea, meanwhile, has a distaste for the “ruling class of professional politicians” and could benefit from grassroots conservatives responsible for recent victories by candidates unafraid to dig into the cultural right wing.

O’Shea said he has raised about $300,000 as of mid-January, though that was before a major fundraiser with Paxton. He started his campaign much earlier, fundraising in April, though he officially announced his candidacy in December.

A changing district

The 12th Congressional District includes the western half of Tarrant County, including the the core of downtown Fort Worth, as well as a large share of rural Parker County. It’s a hub for the defense industry, home to Lockheed Martin Aeronautics and Fort Worth’s military base. It also contains Air Force Plant 4, where the F-35 fighter jet is manufactured.

As the highest ranking Republican on the Appropriations committee, Granger routinely fought for the city’s defense interests. She also clung to an older generation of Republicans who believed in robust investment in U.S. defense and allies overseas. Even as House Republicans began to sour on the war in Ukraine, she was a sustained proponent for helping the cause with U.S.-made military aid.

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, who worked across the aisle with Granger on district infrastructure projects said he’s worried her successor could be more interested in partisan battles.

“Kay put such an emphasis on making sure that we were taken care of locally. And I'm just afraid that the person that's going to succeed her in this heavily Republican seat is going to be more Hannity, and less, you know, four, five, eight and 11,” Veasey said, referring to the city’s local news stations.

But that kind of bipartisanship is what opened Granger to a challenge from the right in 2020. Chris Putnam, who led a right-flank campaign against Granger in that year’s primary, cited Granger’s tepidness on former President Donald Trump’s border agenda as a reason he was recruited to run. That primary race ended up attracting national attention, with Trump and then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy helping Granger win reelection. She won that primary by over 15 points.

O’Shea started fundraising before Granger announced her retirement, essentially setting up a redo of 2020. Putnam warned that the district is shifting, and candidates can’t rest on their bonafides with Fort Worth’s city center. Parker County has experienced explosive growth in recent years, adding more voters backing the right flank of the party.

The district has also signaled its support for more hardline conservative candidates recently. The traditionally purple Tarrant County elected O’Hare as county judge in 2022. O’Hare was previously the county Republican Party’s chairman and supported Putnam in the 2020 primary. O’Hare was thrust into the national spotlight over a decade ago as Farmers Branch mayor for his efforts to target undocumented immigrants, including banning landlords from renting to them. The move was deemed unconstitutional by a federal court.

“People want candidates and officeholders to be people that understand, hey, there's a real battle going on for the heart and soul of our country,” O’Hare said in a recent interview. “A lot of the blame for some of the situations we find ourselves in is our weak Republicans.”

But there are some major differences from 2020. Club for Growth, one of the largest Republican super PACs who has also supported Sen. Ted Cruz, was aggressively backing Putnam in that cycle but has remained muted in this year’s primary (the group declined to comment on this race). Trump had interest in endorsing incumbents like Granger to curry favor with old-guard Republicans following his impeachment.

Still, Putnam acknowledges that money will be the biggest indicator of the race. He did not endorse anyone this cycle but said with Goldman’s fundraising prowess, the race was essentially his to lose.

“Remember, the district is not Tarrant County,” Putnam said. “In every town, state and in DC, there's two Republican parties. Well, that's the truth here, too.”

Disclosure: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Matthew Choi | The Texas Tribune