North Texas Senate runoff creates strange bedfellows, divides usual allies within GOP

From left: Brent Hagenbuch and Jace Yarbrough will face each other in the runoff to replace retiring state Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster.
From left: Brent Hagenbuch and Jace Yarbrough will face each other in the runoff to replace retiring state Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. Credit: Campaign websites

A primary runoff to decide the GOP nominee for an open North Texas Senate seat has sparked an unusual rift among the party’s rightmost flank, with some of the state’s staunchest conservative officials pitted against leading grassroots activists.

The battle to succeed retiring state Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, has come down to a May 28 runoff between Brent Hagenbuch, a Denton County transportation executive who previously chaired the county Republican Party, and Jace Yarbrough, an attorney and conservative activist. Hagenbuch finished with 36% in the March 5 primary, leading a four-candidate field. Yarbrough trailed a few points behind at 34%.

Both candidates are pitching themselves as rock-solid conservatives who would support the state’s continued rightward drift on everything from abortion to guns to immigration.

Hagenbuch is touting an impressive list of allies — key among them is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Senate kingmaker in his own right, and Gov. Greg Abbott. He’s also secured the endorsement of former President Donald Trump — which is rarely far behind Patrick’s — and support from other luminaries of the hard right, including Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller; former state senator Don Huffines, who challenged Abbott from the right in 2022; and state Sen. Bob Hall, a former tea party activist and one of the most conservative legislators in Austin.

Meanwhile, several of Texas’ most prominent GOP grassroots groups have coalesced behind Yarbrough, motivated by questions about whether Hagenbuch legally resides in the district and his $250 donation to a nonpartisan mayoral candidate in Little Elm who received support from local Democrats.

Yarbrough’s supporters include the tea party groups True Texas Project and Grassroots America, and their respective leaders, Julie McCarty and JoAnn Fleming. Also backing him are Kyle Rittenhouse, the right-wing activist famously acquitted of killing two Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020; incoming Dallas County Republican Party Chair Allen West, who previously led the Texas GOP; retiring state Rep. Matt Schaefer, who formerly chaired the Texas House Freedom Caucus; and Shelley Luther, the former Dallas salon owner who famously defied Abbott’s pandemic lockdown order. Luther ran for the Senate seat in a 2020 special election, losing to Springer in a runoff; last month she unseated GOP incumbent Reggie Smith in a state House district that overlaps with Senate District 30.

The Senate primary defies the pattern seen in many other GOP legislative contests this year, in which Abbott, Patrick and school voucher advocates have often aligned with grassroots activists to support insurgent primary challengers. In this case, the pro-voucher contingent — along with scattered hardliners like Hall, Huffines and Miller — are lined up on the same side as groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform and other Hagenbuch supporters seen as establishment Republicans, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and former Gov. Rick Perry. Hagenbuch is also backed by Springer, who most recently clashed with the hard right when he called for the Senate to consider reopening impeachment proceedings against Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Huffines, who contributed around $1,000 to Yarbrough's campaign at the end of last year, said he ultimately got behind Hagenbuch after meeting with the two runoff candidates.

"After interviewing Mr. Yarbrough and Mr. Hagenbuch, it became evident that Brent was the man for the job, that he’s not looking for a new career, and that we need more businessmen in the Texas Senate skilled at solving problems and not creating more problems," Huffines said in a statement.

Targeting Hagenbuch's support from the state's top power brokers, Yarbrough has painted his foe as a darling of the “Austin swamp” whose local ties and conservative bona fides are in doubt.

Hagenbuch says none of this is true. He has long insisted that he lives in the district, even as his opponents have challenged his eligibility in court and cited a host of public records they argue undercut the claim. Hagenbuch retorts that his rivals have tried to keep him off the ballot because they couldn’t defeat him otherwise.

He also waved off criticism of his endorsements, pointing to his support from “grassroots rock stars” Hall, Huffines and Miller.

“Mr. Yarbrough’s labeling my endorsements as ‘Austin Elites’ is laughable,” Hagenbuch said. “His protests are simply a fig leaf he wears to cover his inadequacy as a candidate.”

Daron Shaw, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the Hagenbuch-Yarbrough endorsement battle shows how, in Texas, the line has grown increasingly blurred between the Republican Party’s populist and establishment wings.

“An interesting question is what happens when, in an effort to establish your populist credentials, you cite [support from] candidates who are actually part of the establishment now,” Shaw said. “In a state like Texas, the MAGA elements of the Republican Party are, if they're not calling the shots, they're certainly ensconced in the power structure.”

A key part of that power structure is Patrick, who holds immense sway overseeing the upper chamber, due in part to his success backing allies in open Senate GOP primaries.

This year, Senate District 30 is the only such contest in the 31-seat chamber. While Patrick will likely maintain a firm grip on the chamber either way, a Yarbrough win would mark a rare defeat for the lieutenant governor who maintains an iron fist over the upper chamber.

It would also show that it’s possible to overcome Patrick’s opposition — possibly affecting the way his power is perceived within the upper chamber, Shaw said.

“Whether that's sort of a functional power, or whether it’s just perception [of Patrick’s clout], it ends up being reality,” he said.

Trump’s endorsements in down-ballot Texas races have typically come at the behest of Patrick, a close ally of the former president. And attracting Trump’s stamp of approval is just one way Patrick has thrown his weight around to elect allies to the Senate — including in 2022, when he backed five candidates in open GOP primaries, all of whom went on to easily win their races.

Patrick’s endorsement is also typically followed by a wave of cash from right-wing donors and interest groups, and he has at times dipped into his own war chest to help fund his allies’ campaigns. It has allowed Patrick to fill the Senate with lawmakers who not only share his conservative views, but also are indebted to him for backing their campaigns.

Hagenbuch has a massive financial advantage, owing largely to the $1.2 million he’s kicked in to his own campaign. Patrick had also spent more than $40,000 on radio ads and voter outreach for Hagenbuch through late February, making him the top contributor to either candidate.

Yarbrough, meanwhile, had loaned his campaign $200,000 through late February, the latest period covered by public campaign finance reports. He’d been outspent more than three-to-one up to that point.

Yarbrough has knocked Hagenbuch for receiving a $25,000 contribution from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a prominent donor group that has been cast as an emblem of the GOP establishment by the hard right. The group tends to support candidates who promote business-friendly policies, and Hagenbuch, citing his background overseeing trucking and freight logistics companies, said transportation and business issues “would undoubtedly be a focus for me.”

Earlier this month, Hagenbuch received another financial boost when Club for Growth Action, a super PAC that has targeted Republicans who oppose private school vouchers, announced it was committing “six figures” to support Hagenbuch in the runoff. The move appears to be motivated by Yarbrough’s past comments that he did not consider school vouchers a priority, and that he was open to a carveout exempting well-performing rural school districts from a statewide voucher program. Passing school vouchers has long been one of Patrick’s legislative priorities, stifled by the House.

Yarbrough said in an email that he is “absolutely committed to parental empowerment in education” and argued that all parents “who want a better education for their children should receive the resources to make that happen.” He has also noted that he and his wife founded a Christian school — Saint Francis Academy, located north of Denton in the city of Sanger — to “empower parents and give them choice in their children's education, free from radical woke ideologies.”

But, Yarbrough said, “I’m not wedded to vouchers as the specific mechanism by which to empower parents, because I believe there are many possible strategies, both politically, and in terms of policy, to achieve that goal.”

“I’m also realistic: even if we have relatively high participation rates in school choice compared to other states, the majority of Texas parents will choose public school for their children, including those in rural areas,” Yarbrough said.

The district covers all or parts of 11 counties, including about half of Denton County, which accounted for more than one-third of votes in the March 5 primary. It also includes portions of Collin, Parker and Wichita and all of Grayson and Cooke counties. Nearly one million people live in the district, which is largely suburban and rural.

The GOP primary winner is all but guaranteed to win the November election, given the district’s heavy Republican lean. Abbott carried it by nearly 28 percentage points in 2022, and Trump would have carried it by 23 points in 2020.

Residency dispute

Though Yarbrough is making his first run for office, he entered the race with established ties to the Texas GOP’s hardline wing thanks to his background in conservative legal circles. A former Air Force officer who now serves in the Air Force Reserve, he refused an order to take the COVID-19 vaccine and later sued the Air Force when he received a formal reprimand for critical comments he made about “cancel culture” in the military at a private military retirement ceremony. Yarbrough, who made the comments while in uniform but not on active duty, argued that his speech was protected by the First Amendment. One of the firms representing him in the lawsuit is First Liberty Institute, a conservative religious liberty law firm with close links to leading figures in the Texas GOP’s rightmost flank.

A trial lawyer who takes on conservative legal causes himself, Yarbrough has touted his work in a lawsuit that aims to bar the city of San Antonio from using public funds to help Texans obtain abortions in other states. He also served as general counsel to state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, during last year’s impeachment trial of her husband, Ken Paxton.

Hagenbuch also served in the military as a member of the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. And he has attracted his own share of local and grassroots support, touting endorsements from a couple dozen precinct chairs, five sheriffs in the district, and various city and county leaders.

But he was also targeted earlier this year by the Denton County GOP, which passed a resolution demanding that Hagenbuch drop out of the race for “deceiving” voters about his residency.

The issue has dogged Hagenbuch throughout the campaign. It stems from a part of the Texas Constitution that requires legislative candidates to reside in the district they are seeking to represent for at least a year before the November election — in Hagenbuch’s case, Nov. 5, 2023.

When Hagenbuch filed for Senate District 30 in November, he listed his residence as an office building inside the district, though his opponents countered he had long been living in a home in a neighboring district. Hagenbuch later claimed in court that he had been indefinitely subleasing a corporate apartment inside the office building, which houses his transportation company, for $1 every three months.

Hagenbuch’s opponents argue his claim is undermined by property, tax and voter registration records indicating he lived at an address in Little Elm, outside the district, as of Nov. 5. Hagenbuch also early voted in the November 2023 election from an address in neighboring Senate District 12.

A spokesperson for Hagenbuch has said he began living in the office building residence because his daughter moved into the family house after her husband died, and she ended up staying longer than expected. He has since moved into an apartment across the street from the office building, according to court filings.

Though the lawsuit remains pending, Hagenbuch said he considers the matter settled in the eyes of voters after a judge earlier this year ruled that he could continue his campaign.

More recently, Hagenbuch’s critics have seized on an audio recording published by the website Current Revolt that features the candidate and an unnamed person in “candid conversation” about the idea of eliminating the main component of school property taxes in Texas. Abbott and some other conservatives have pushed the concept, arguing the state’s growing sales and franchise tax revenue could eventually replace property taxes that pay for school maintenance and operations.

In the recording, Hagenbuch called the idea “just ridiculous” unless you “don’t want to have a school system.” That aligns him with Patrick, who last year called the idea “a fantasy,” arguing Texas would be left in the lurch anytime sales tax revenue fell in a down economy.

Hagenbuch, asked to confirm the authenticity of the audio, said he was “not a fan of folks who covertly record casual conversation” and did not deny that he was the voice on the recording.

He said he wants to continue the approach taken by lawmakers last year: using Texas’ budget surplus to increase the school homestead exemption and buy down tax rates through what’s known as “rate compression.” A campaign spokesperson pointed to a 2018 report from a nonpartisan tax group that found the state’s sales tax rate “would have to almost quadruple” to make up for the elimination of property tax revenue.

“The voters will never adopt a plan like that, and it would kill the Texas economy,” Hagenbuch said.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters 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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