The 13-person race to replace retiring Congressman Bill Flores (R-TX-17) got quite a bit more interesting this past weekend. Flores has supported several candidates throughout the primary race, but had yet to formally endorse the candidate he believes should succeed him in Washington D.C.
He has now done just that — endorsing Renee Swann in Waco on Saturday.
Swann called the endorsement “humbling.”
Flores called Swann “a smart and tough businesswoman…the kind of leader we need in Washington.”
The congressman stated he saw three candidates as head-and-shoulders above the rest. He was referring to Swann, former Secret Service agent Scott Bland, and retired Marine Master Sergeant Trent Sutton. Flores told the crowd of press and supporters he gave financially to each of them “to help them get their campaigns off the ground.”
However, he also contributed to a fourth candidate, former College Station city councilwoman Elianor Vessali. FEC records show Flores donated to Vessali, Swann, and Bland on December 19 — with a refund requested for the Vessali donation on January 14, the same day Vessali announced her intention to join the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Flores told the Waco Tribune-Herald on February 4 he requested the contribution back because he saw “[Vessali’s] campaign [moving] in the wrong direction.”
Meanwhile, Sutton’s FEC records do not yet show a contribution from Flores — meaning, that contribution was made sometime after the fourth quarter filing deadline of December 31 and was made separate from the original three.
The Texan reached out to Vessali for comment.
She stated: “I respect Congressman Flores’ right, like that of any other voter, to support the candidate of his choice. I was originally included in his list of 3 candidates who he donated to and would consider endorsing, but once I announced my intention to join the House Freedom Caucus if invited, he requested his donation be returned. I, of course, honored his request and returned the donation. I will always proudly stand with other Constitutional conservatives who understand that the days of D.C. business as usual must end.”
At the press conference, Flores stated his criteria for a candidate which included a “thoughtful constitutional conservative”; someone who supports limited government and is pro-life from “conception to natural death”; supports the Second Amendment and President Trump’s policies; supports border security and strong national defense; and someone that will never surrender their voter card.
To that end, Flores spoke of the importance of “not turning over your voting card to special interest groups or other groups who would dictate it.”
Flores took a direct shot at one of Swann’s opponents, stating, “outside groups that are sniffing around, thinking about getting involved in this race and they are considering supporting one of the ‘carpetbaggers.’”
Just whom Flores is alluding to here could be one or both of two candidates: former Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX-32) and first-time candidate George Hindman.
Sessions famously lost to now-Congressman Colin Allred in 2018 after serving 11 terms in D.C. and decided to move to Waco this past October to run for the open seat in the 17th Congressional District.
Sessions also responded to the endorsement.
“When I am elected to represent CD-17, I will begin with more seniority than Rep. Flores has now. That seniority will help deliver highway funding, support our research institutions, promote our agriculture community and protect Waco and Bryan-College Station in redistricting.”
“That same seniority will help me also deliver on the key issues facing our nation: changing our immigration laws, building the southern border wall and balancing the budget. A freshman member of Congress will not be as effective in helping to win the majority, and Rep. Flores knows that,” he concluded.
Sessions also criticized Flores for supporting and then revoking his support for Vessali.
Hindman, meanwhile, was the first candidate to declare his intention to join the House Freedom Caucus — a group that Flores, who formerly helmed the Republican Study Committee (RSC), is not friendly with.
The House Freedom Caucus officially launched at the beginning of 2015 when Flores took over the helm at the RSC.
For years, the RSC had been seen as the right flank in the U.S. House, but conservatives criticized it as becoming too big and too cozy with leadership, a dynamic that many in the Freedom Caucus believed Flores continued as chairman.
Hindman has received support from various conservative groups such as Texas Right to Life, Texas Values, Texas Homeschool Coalition, and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.
With their recent endorsement of Chris Putnam in the TX-12 race and Chris Ekstrom in TX-13, some observers are watching Club for Growth to see if the conservative powerhouse will get involved for Hindman or Vessali.
In response to the Flores endorsement, Hindman sent the following statement to The Texan: “I’m honored to be the only candidate endorsed in this race by Texas Right to Life and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. Mr. Flores made it clear that anyone who wanted to join the Freedom Caucus, the most conservative group in congress, was disqualified from receiving his support. His decision is no surprise to us.”
Flores also stated, “The next representative needs to be one of us. They need to live here, work here, raise a family here, worship here, and serve other people here.”
Bland, one of the candidates supported up until this point by Flores, said on Facebook, “Congressman Flores has been a friend, mentor, and champion for conservative causes for many years. I have great respect for him and took his advice when he encouraged me to run for Congress after his retirement. I am disappointed that he has decided to endorse another candidate.
“I have raised more money from local donors than any other candidate in this race, yet I am being outspent. Having vast personal wealth should not be the only qualification to run for Congress. Washington has enough insiders and millionaires and I will fight every day to prove to the voters that I am something different,” he concluded.
Sutton, the other candidate whom Flores has supported, told The Texan, “Congressman Flores is still an investor in Sutton for Congress. We spoke yesterday, and I appreciate his continued support for our campaign.”
“Many of our supporters would have liked to have seen the endorsement go our way, but this does not alter our game plan in the least. I am as committed to this endeavor as I was on the day I announced my candidacy. We still have the best organization and grassroots operation in the field.”
He concluded, “Most were on the team before Congressman Flores added me to his list of promising candidates, and all of them remain on the team today. I thank Congressman Flores for his guidance, and I thank everyone for their steadfast support. We Got This!”
In thanking Flores, Swann told the crowd, “Congressman Flores has been an exceptional voice for this community. He’s accessible, gets things done, and people know they can rely on him and his office.”
Both Flores and Swann decried Democrats’ push for socialist policies and touted the need to support President Trump.
Swann added, “With President Trump in office, we finally have opportunity to secure the border and crush the cartels, expand healthcare options while lowering prices, and must continue getting rid of regulations — limiting the growth of the federal government.”
The biggest issue for Swann is healthcare. Swann is a former healthcare executive and currently operates an eye surgery center with her husband, Russell. When asked what legislation pertaining to healthcare she would pursue if elected, Swann told The Texan, “The major goal here is to open [our healthcare system] back up to a free market — to deregulate.”
The most specific Swann got was pointing to allowing insurance to be purchased across state lines and to bring down drug prices. She also added the importance of understanding the long-term consequences of a potential policy.
The race for the GOP nomination will likely come down to a run-off between the top two candidates in this field. That will be held on May 26 unless one candidate receives over 50 percent of votes on Super Tuesday.
Flores is clearly hedging his bets that this endorsement consolidates support for one candidate in order to help put her in the run-off.
The endorsement is significant, but whether it is enough to propel Swann into the top two remains to be seen.
Texans in the district have 22 days to find out.
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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.