Election years are notorious for the rampant mudslinging between candidates that typically stokes the public tension along partisan divisions.
But before the electorate is completely absorbed in the fight between Democrats and Republicans, some intraparty debates will continue in Texas until after the runoff election, which is currently scheduled for July 14 as early voting began yesterday.
On the Republican side, one of the most heated runoffs in the state is in Texas’ 17th Congressional District, located in the central part of the state covering both Waco and College Station.
With Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX-17) retiring at the end of his term, a dozen Republicans sought to succeed him and placed their names on the March 3 primary ballot.
Former Congressman Pete Sessions, who served in Texas’ 32nd Congressional District until he lost to Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX-32) in 2018, led the race with 31.6 percent of the vote.
Renee Swann, who runs an eye surgery clinic with her husband in Waco and was endorsed by Flores in February, finished in second place with 19 percent of the vote.
George Hindman trailed just behind Swann with 18 percent of the vote. No other candidate received more than 10 percent.
Campaigns During the Lockdown
Soon after the March 3 primary, though, many campaigns came to an abrupt halt along with the rest of society in wake of the coronavirus pandemic and government-mandated lockdown precautions.
Many candidates across the state used their campaign apparatuses to serve their communities, often by distributing meals or health supplies.
Michael Blair, the campaign manager for Swann told The Texan that during the first few weeks of the pandemic, they conducted over 40,000 wellness calls with people in the district.
He said that their outreach efforts led to helping people like one woman in her eighties who lived alone and needed a porch that was falling off to be repaired.
“Now this woman not only has a new porch, she’s got people who are getting her groceries,” said Blair, adding that now there are also people helping her receive medical attention and housekeeping assistance.
Blair said that Swann also volunteered weekly at a food pantry, but said she is “not seeking the glory for it,” turning away opportunities to interview on television.
Similarly, W. Kirk Bell, the campaign manager for Sessions, said that their campaign had also volunteered by helping distribute N-95 face masks, but that they did not publicize it.
“We’re not doing it and then putting pictures of it out there, because that’s just not what you do,” said Bell.
Criticisms Against Sessions
Though door knocking might have stopped with the lockdown, you can be sure that GOP voters in the district have seen a fair share of mailing and television advertisements. And many have been critical.
Swann has actively attacked Sessions — even launching a website called “The Problem with Pete” — and has raised several objections to his candidacy.
- Swann has accused Sessions of “carpet-bagging,” since he decided to run in the open, more safely Republican seat instead of attempting to challenge Allred for his previously held Dallas-area district.
- “He didn’t raise a family here,” said Blair. “He hasn’t grown a business here. He has had no connection to the area for the last 20 years.”
- Flores expressed similar dismay at Sessions’ decision to run in the district, saying that he wished Sessions had talked with him before deciding to run.
- Bell defended Sessions’ decision to run in the district saying that he was “born and raised in Waco” — to former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director William Sessions — and noted that when Sessions represented the 5th Congressional District a few years before the 32nd was created, it overlapped with 40 percent of the current 17th district.
- Bell also said that Sessions was asked to run for the seat from GOP county chairs in the district amidst concerns from Republicans that Chet Edwards, the former Democratic representative for TX-17, might run for it again.
- “Career Politician”
- Swann has also criticized Sessions of being a “career politician” and has questioned his record in Congress.
- “I’ve been told Pete Sessions was a good congressman for Dallas, but two decades in Washington made Pete part of the problem and his record shows it,” said Swann in a recent video advertisement attacking Sessions.
- Swann says that in contrast, she is in favor of term limits — so much so that she says the first bill she would file would be to limit members of Congress to 12 years on the Hill.
- “You say he’s a career politician,” said Bell, “[but] we’d say that he’s got 22 years of seniority coming to him.” With that seniority, Bell said that Sessions would be placed in a more powerful committee position — possibly on the Financial Services Committee — while Swann would have less influence.
- Bell said that Sessions is also in favor of term limits and has supported efforts to institute one in the past, but wants it imposed unilaterally on all members, instead of individual representatives pledging to only serve a limited number of terms.
- Trade Deals with China
- “Pete voted to give China unfair trade deals, repeatedly,” Swann notes in the ad, which cites legislation he supported around the turn of the century.
- “The vote that Pete Sessions took as congressman for Dallas directly impacted this area and quite negatively,” said Blair, contending that the manufacturing industry in the district “was much healthier before these votes were taken.”
- Bell said that those votes led to 75,000 jobs and that “the trade deals that Pete voted on with China resulted in billions of dollars of agricultural trade for Texas.”
- Asked about balancing the concerns between manufacturing and agriculture, Blair said that farmers must “have access to foreign markets,” but that they should seek trade partners that do not have “conflicting values.”
- Allegations of Corruption
- Swann has also criticized Sessions for using $80,000 of campaign funds for criminal defense attorney fees, and has raised questions about his connection to Venezuelan officials who sought to ease U.S. oil and gas restrictions against the socialist government.
- “I don’t want to necessarily try and speak to the various issues that are coming up as a result of Mr. Sessions’ legal issues, but […] you don’t spend that level of money out of your campaign account unless there is something seriously wrong and something that voters need to be aware of,” said Blair.
- No formal complaint or clear evidence of wrongdoing has been levied against Sessions.
- After the payments to the lawyers, Sessions made a personal loan for his campaign of $90,000.
Criticisms Against Swann
While Swann launched the website criticizing Sessions, he has also raised criticisms against her in a recent advertisement.
- Voting in a Democratic Primary
- “Renee Swann publicly admitted that she voted for Hillary Clinton for president. She’s a Democratic primary voter,” says the ad.
- The ad did not specify when Swann allegedly voted for Clinton or in the Democratic primary.
- “Pete is right now on TV trying to tell people, ‘Renee Swann voted for Hillary Clinton for president — period,’ which is an absolute lie. Renee Swann did no such thing,” said Blair. “If Pete Sessions can’t be honest about the little things, why on earth would people hire him?”
- Voting records show that Swann voted in the 2008 Democratic primary, which she says was part of “Operation Chaos,” a plan promoted by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh meant to disrupt the Democratic presidential nomination. Before and after 2008, Swann has voted in Republican primaries.
- “We’ve been very clear that it was 2008,” said Bell. “And we don’t think it’s misleading because we’re of the belief that Republicans don’t vote for Democrats, especially gun-grabbing, progressive liberal Democrats.”
- Interview with the Waco Tribune-Herald
- The ad from Sessions also referenced an interview that the Waco Tribune-Herald (the Waco-Trib) conducted with Swann. Afterwards, the paper stated that Swann was “impassioned on topics in a general sense,” but added that “she demonstrated a lack of knowledge, depth[,] and context on even basic issues.”
- Swann expressed support for the Second Amendment during the interview, but when asked about the Supreme Court’s decision in D.C. v. Heller (2008) and its allowance for some regulations of weapons, Swann said that she would “need to have the Heller decision in front of” her to comment on it.
- She also refused to comment on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s calls for expanded background checks.
- In the questionnaire that Swann submitted to the National Rifle Association, she stated that she agreed with the pro-Second Amendment organization on every issue, including opposition to a background check requirement for private transfers.
- “It’s very clear that the interviewer went in there with an agenda,” said Blair. “Anybody who has been around Waco knows that the Waco Tribune-Herald editorial board [. . .] is a left-leaning, anti-Donald Trump, anti-Republican group of folks.”
- Blair said that the interviewer greeted Swann — who had only just begun her campaign and was in the process of organizing its leadership — with, “How dare you?” for having a time constraint for the interview, but that they did not attempt to reschedule an interview.
- Blair also said that while someone who has a career in politics might know about issues like Heller, “it’s very easy to forget that the rest of the world does not live like that.”
- “The reality is they stated what is accurate: Renee just doesn’t know the issues,” said Bell. “If Renee can’t handle journalists from the Waco-Trib or Austin-American Statesman, how is she going to handle Nancy Pelosi or the New York Times?”
The final Federal Election Commission reports before the runoff will be made public on Thursday, July 2.
At the end of March, Swann had about $40,000 more cash on hand than Sessions — about $130,000 compared to $90,000.
Swann has also outraised Sessions in total since the beginning of 2019, with $670,000 compared to $430,000. However, of those totals, Swann has taken $454,000 in personal loans, while Sessions has taken $90,000.
Early voting for the July 14 election began on Monday, June 29.
Both candidates clearly agree that one has spent decades in Congress and the other has spent little time in politics, but they disagree on which is the strength and which is the weakness. That will be left to the Republican voters in the district to decide.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.