Dive bars might be one of America’s most recognizable bastions of greatness. Something about their environment seems to draw the honesty right out of you — so it was an ideal (if not natural) place to host a candidate forum for the Republicans running to succeed retiring Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX-17).
Surrounded by neon beer signs, drink special boards, and eager voters, nine of the 12 Republican primary candidates shuffled onto the stage Tuesday night at Smitty K’s in College Station.
Those candidates were former Secret Service agent and current businessman, Scott Bland; businesswoman Laurie Godfrey McReynolds; actual rocket scientist, George Hindman; businessman and former college assistant dean, Todd Kent; real estate agent, Kristen Alamo Rowin; businessman and community advocate, David Saucedo; retired Marine Master Sergeant, Trent Sutton; healthcare executive, Renee Swann; and businesswoman and former College Station city councilwoman, Elianor Vessali.
Three candidates did not attend, among them former 32nd Congressional District Rep. Pete Sessions.
In the heart of Aggieland, right off the bat, each candidate touted their conservative credentials. To prove their conservative acumen, a few candidates stated their intention to join the House Freedom Caucus. Hindman was the first to announce this intention a while back. The other three who stated as much were Vessali, Kent, and Rowin.
One candidate who departed from that was Trent Sutton, who stated, “I am going to represent your voices in Washington, not turn my vote over to a group.”
On the issues, the candidates expounded upon numerous topics such as spending, healthcare, the border/immigration, abortion, and campus free speech.
Regarding spending, Vessali emphasized, “What was once unthinkable has now become normal” — referring to the current budget/appropriations status quo.
She would like to see the federal government, and Congress in particular, get back to a regular budgetary process so that last-minute continuing resolutions (CRs) are the rare exception rather than the rule.
On this issue, Hindman elaborated he wants to eliminate the budget resolution process which he believes takes far too long, thus forcing CRs in the eleventh hour.
Numerous candidates also expressed their desire to use partial government shutdowns, if necessary, to force budgetary reform. Others advocated for balanced budget amendments.
Another popular topic to touch on was immigration and the border.
When asked if illegal immigrants should receive amnesty, Sutton emphatically stated, “Absolutely no. You don’t get to break the law and then be rewarded for it.”
Further expounding on immigration, Kent elaborated that a merit-based system is important, “but it should be secondary to assimilation.”
Saucedo stated, “Weakness invites attacks. We need a strong physical barrier.”
McReynolds pointed to our southern neighbor’s inability to corral its bad actors, stating, “Mexico has never really been able to take care of their country.”
On America’s biggest national security threat, Bland pointed to the rising Asian superpower, stating, “We traded a Cold War with the Soviet Union for an economic war with China.”
Regarding abortion, each candidate touted their pro-life acumen. Bland called every abortion “an opportunity lost.”
Bland and Swann specified the only instance where abortion should be legal is in the case of “clear evidence” regarding the health and life of the mother. Other candidates stated in no case should it be legal.
Sutton took a bit of a different approach. Pointing to the only way abortion can be made illegal is by the courts overturning Roe v. Wade, Sutton indicated he wants to focus on what the legislature could accomplish, and that is passing heartbeat legislation.
On the size of the federal government, all candidates agreed it has grown far beyond what the constitution permits.
Kent remarked, “The separation of powers ensures nobody [or branch] has too much power.”
Saucedo added, “It was given clear and enumerated powers” — then specified he sees no role in education for the federal government and that the commerce clause has been abused for far too long.
Other candidates stated they’d like to see powers the federal government has amassed, returned to the states.
When it comes to speech on campuses, Rowin stated, “We should not support institutions that hate our values. Cut them where it hurts, that’s in their pocketbooks.”
Rowin was one of many candidates on stage advocating to cut federal funding for universities that do not protect free speech.
Regarding healthcare, candidates want to see an expansion of health savings accounts, more competition in the marketplace, and eliminating “safe harbor provisions.”
Saucedo touched on the failure of the conservative movement to reach young people. He stated, “If we don’t educate these young people with conservative messages, we will be outnumbered. We must teach them the power of liberty.”
When asked if they support red flag laws, answers ranged from “No” to “Hell No.” All candidates were ardently opposed.
The two things the bevy of candidates had most in common were A) support for the president and B) support for his decision to kill Soleimani.
When asked what the biggest threat to America was, Vessali, Rowin, Sutton, and Kent all stated some form of “the left,” “progressives,” or “socialism.” Bland and Hindman pointed to the border. Swann and McReynolds said China. And Saucedo stated, “The Deep State.”
Afterward, Brazos County GOP Chairman David Hilburn, expounded upon what TX-17 voters’ he’s spoken to are looking for in their representative.
“They’re looking for a conservative who will listen to the voters; who will be in the district; who will get our feedback; will go to Washington and enact what we like; and will be one of us.”
Patti Wells, a TX-17 resident since 1972, told me that going into the forum she was hoping to see “people that shared my values and people who were competent, well-organized and persuasive.”
Coming out of the forum, Wells said she was most impressed with Vessali, Bland, Saucedo, and Swann — but also added that they all seem to be great candidates.
She also appreciated the group’s collective “belief in life.” Wells stated, as a voter, she is very concerned with “the Deep State” — “the group of unelected people in Washington are running our government and are not accountable to the people.”
Nathan Cook, a TX-17 resident since 2010, told me he “wanted to hear from the candidates directly about their positions on the issues.”
“This forum gave me the opportunity to compare the candidates and hear their answers,” he added. Cook stated a few candidates did rise to the top but wanted to keep who they were to himself.
Afterward, Cook stated the passion from the candidates stood out to him and the forum allowed him to categorize the candidates in his preferential order.
To Cook, his three biggest issues are “life, national security, and sanctity of marriage.”
A dozen candidates have thrown their hats into the ring in the race to succeed retiring incumbent Rep. Bill Flores.
Whoever emerges from this field will almost assuredly win the general election in what is considered a solidly Republican district.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misstated which candidates intended to join the House Freedom Caucus and which didn’t. We regret this error.
Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.