Travco Republicans Settle on More Moderate House Candidate to Challenge Dem
Travis County Republicans have chosen a center-right policeman as their candidate for a November race for Texas House of Representatives, giving a pass to a firebrand populist who attacked elected Republicans and criticized coronavirus-related restrictions.
In the primary runoff election July 14, Justin Berry defeated Jennifer Fleck with 54.6% of the votes to Fleck’s 45.4%, out of 11,514 votes cast.
Berry had entered the race as the underdog, having only narrowly made the runoff by placing one vote ahead of third-place finisher Don Zimmerman in a March primary. This time he glided past Fleck with a 1,052-vote lead.
He will face Rep. Vikki Goodwin, a Democrat, in the November election. The winner will hold a two-year term representing HD-47, which covers western parts of Austin as well as Bee Cave, Lakeway, and Lago Vista.
Fleck ran a campaign focused on values issues like sex education in schools, respecting traditional marriage, and “honoring the military,” whereas Berry placed more emphasis on down-to-earth questions of traffic, taxes, and crime, without necessarily opposing Fleck directly on the other issues.
Mailers sent by Berry to primary voters accused Fleck of being “focused on fringe issues that will make her unelectable in November.” She retorted, “If fringe issues are protecting children, families and parental rights, then yes, I am fringe. I am very electable.”
The two differed on several issues, including ‘constitutional carry’ and a proposed prohibition on taxpayer-funded lobbying, with Fleck in both cases holding the more libertarian view. Both are pet issues of Empower Texans, a libertarian-leaning activist group that backed Fleck in the primary.
That endorsement became something of a liability after two Empower Texans staffers recently were recorded mocking Governor Greg Abbott for being confined to a wheelchair, in a profanity-laced tirade. Abbott endorsed Berry in the primary runoff.
One voter, Carrie Semple, said that Fleck lost her support after she attacked the governor. “When you started taking pictures with people who were holding ‘impeach Abbott’ signs, you lost my vote. It is possible that I am not alone,” she wrote on Fleck’s Facebook page.
Berry sought to capitalize on Abbott’s endorsement and played up her criticism of the governor. One attack mailer from a group supporting him, the Austin Police Association, said Fleck “seems to have gone off the deep end,” and said she traveled to a “Mexican resort” during the pandemic and afterwards returned to “attack Governor Abbott in a demonstration.”
In an interview, Craig Murphy, a political consultant and spokesman for Berry, declined to comment on substantive differences between Berry and Fleck, but said that he thought she had been hurt by doing some “zany” thing during the primary, including the trip to Mexico.
The Trump administration on March 20 banned non-essential travel to Mexico. Fleck acknowledged taking the trip in a statement on her website, saying, “I celebrated my 50th birthday with a planned spring break trip March 18th — 21st with extended family.”
Murphy said that Berry hadn’t campaign on coronavirus-related issues, but he noted that Fleck had come out against measures taken by Governor Abbott. “She talked about being against the governor’s shutdown. She certainly talked about that.”
Fleck took part in several rallies at the Capitol against public health restrictions, including a controversial “Shed the Mask, Don the Flag Rally” on July 4. And in a June 24 social media post, she boasted of defying a requirement by H-E-B, the Texas grocer, to wear masks in company stores.
“I was just at my local Lakeway HEB. A place a patronize at least twice a week. The place is huge,” she wrote. “With the exception of a couple weeks during lockdown, I haven’t worn a mask. The last few weeks have been so nice, because neighborhood shoppers were starting to relax, smile at each other and most stopped wearing masks.”
“Then today, HEB has a ‘required mask’ sign on the doors. I didn’t have one. I went in to shop for a few things… What planet am I living on?? I asked the manager at the front and she said no patron would be asked to leave for not wearing a mask, but they are ‘required.’ I’m not wearing a mask, so don’t threaten me again!”
After her loss at the polls, Fleck refused to accept the result, suggesting instead that she had been cheated out of a win. “If my little race can be stolen, why couldn’t our November election be stolen? This should be everyone’s deep concern.”
Murphy said he didn’t think anybody was taking this claim very seriously.
According to campaign finance filings, Berry’s campaign was helped by Associated Republicans of Texas, a political action committee founded in the 1970s to help flip Texas red. ARC gave $31,962 to Berry, including a $13,800 in-kind donation in the form of campaign canvassing, and $12,000 in cash.
ARC supported Berry “for the same reasons the voters did,” Murphy said. “They liked his background, they liked his personal values, and thought that he would be a better candidate.”
Fleck raised significantly less money than Berry, and had few large donors. She received $2,500 from Mayes Middleton, an oilman and Texas legislator who heads the Freedom Caucus, and $1,000 from Scott Price, a Plano businessman.
Vikki Goodwin, the one-term Democrat incumbent in HD-47, did not respond to an invitation to comment for this article. Prior to 2018, Goodwin’s seat was held by a Republican, Paul Workman, who had won his reelection bids fairly easily. Now Republicans are hoping to reverse their 2018 loss.
But with Democrat turnout in Travis County expected to be high this year, and Travis County growing bluer and bluer every year, they face an uphill battle.
Still, Craig Murphy is optimistic. “It’s a good district for Republicans,” he said. “It’ll go our direction. Every single election since World War II the party with the president — the party that’s in power — does better in the presidential years than in the off-years.”
He cited Democratic gains in Texas congressional races in 2008 when Barack Obama first won the presidency, then losses in 2010, then a recovery in 2012. “There’s going to be a natural drift back from the (Democratic) gains just like what happened to the Republicans under Obama.”
Craig Murphy is president of Murphy Nasica & Associates, an Austin-based political consultancy working with candidates throughout the South and Southwest.
Originally published at https://www.honestaustin.com on July 17, 2020.