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At odds with Abbott and Paxton, Rep. Stan Lambert is under fire and getting outraised in his GOP primary

By Zach Despart, The Texas Tribune

At odds with Abbott and Paxton, Rep. Stan Lambert is under fire and getting outraised in his GOP primary” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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ABILENE — First elected to the Texas House in 2016, Rep. Stan Lambert had only ever drawn a single primary challenger before this year. He won by 52 points to little fanfare.

But two years later, his primary is a warzone. His district is being blanketed with negative mailers casting him as an anti-education liberal. Donald Trump, whom Lambert supports, told constituents to vote against him. And he’s drawn the ire of the state’s most powerful leaders who are out for vengeance because of his votes on two key issues.

Lambert voted to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton on charges of corruption and bribery. He also helped defeat a school voucher proposal that was among Gov. Greg Abbott’s top legislative priorities. Both positions are unpopular with Republican primary voters, a University of Houston poll recently found.

Lambert’s stances have created an opening for his current primary challenger, Liz Case, conservative activist. Paxton and Abbott have endorsed her — as part of their parallel revenge crusades — as have Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. He’s one of the few House Republican targets who is being outraised by his opponents.

But he is unfazed. Those men supporting his opponent don’t vote in House District 71, four rural counties in West Texas anchored by Abilene, and he said they don’t know his constituents like he does.

There are partisan diehards in both major parties, Lambert said, but most voters choose local candidates based on their personal attributes. And within the district, Lambert said voters trust he’s doing his best on their behalf.

Texas House District 71 Rep. Stan Lambert speaks with one of the attendees at monthly meeting of the Texas Retired Teachers Association Region 14 chapter at the Abilene Country Club Feb. Thursday 8, 2024.
Lambert speaks with one of the attendees at monthly meeting of the Texas Retired Teachers Association Region 14 chapter at the Abilene Country Club on Feb. 8, 2024. Credit: Ronald W. Erdrich for The Texas Tribune

“I just think it goes back to those individual relationships I’ve been building over 55 years of living in this community and being involved,” Lambert said. “They may not agree with every vote I take, but I think they realize I’m going to listen… and come to a decision I think is best for our district.”

Lambert, 71, has spent most of his life in Abilene. A hard-throwing southpaw on the Abilene High School baseball team, Lambert earned a business degree from Abilene Christian University and became a banker. He served as mayor of Ennis, south of Dallas, and later was elected as an Abilene ISD trustee and then state representative in 2016.

At the Capitol, he said he tries to look out for the interests of West Texas, since there are comparatively few lawmakers whose job it is to do so. Of the 150 House districts, only about 15 are west of I-35, which runs from Laredo through Fort Worth and Dallas.

He is especially passionate about public education, and recalled how spending cuts the Legislature enacted during the Great Recession, while he was president of the local school board, forced Abilene ISD to eliminate more than 100 employees through layoffs and attrition.

Lambert said the state already under-funds education. His opposition to vouchers is rooted in his belief that allowing taxpayer dollars to follow students to private and religious schools would further harm public schools, especially in rural areas like the four counties he represents.

“There are statistics about Texas being 41st or 42nd in terms of [education] funding compared to other states,” Lambert said. “I think we have the eighth-largest economy in the world. I think that’s saying something about how serious we are about public education in Texas.”

Lambert said he would be open to a limited-eligibility voucher program for disabled children and those in chronically low-performing public schools. But he fears a universal program, like the one Abbott proposed that the House killed in November, would balloon in cost.

He likewise has no regrets over impeaching Paxton. The evidence of malfeasance warranted it, Lambert said, adding that he thought Republican Sen. Drew Springer’s admission last month that he wished the Senate would reconsider its acquittal further proved that the House was right. His endorsements include U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, whose district overlaps with Lambert’s, and Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham.

He acknowledged his stances have gotten him crosswise with some of the state’s most powerful Republicans. But he said he has done what he thinks his constituents want, following the advice all three speakers he’s served under have imparted on members.

“Everyone has said vote your district, because if you don’t, you’re not going to come back,” Lambert said.

Case has cast herself as the true conservative in the race and has spent much of her campaign attacking Lambert. Case, 58, did not respond to phone calls or text messages seeking an interview. She also declined to speak to a reporter at a civic event in Abilene.

At a candidate forum hosted by the Taylor County Republican Party, Case said she has owned a ranch in the district with her husband for 18 years, which the couple visited from Dallas on weekends until she settled there full-time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Case registered to vote in Taylor County on December 15, secretary of state records show, and voted in Dallas County as recently as 2022.

Though she has never held elected office, Case said she has traveled to the Capitol for eight years to push for conservative policies, often finding Republicans who reneged on promises they had made to their constituents. She said her run was a spiritual calling from God and said the Legislature needs more Christians “because there aren’t many down there” (Lambert is a member of University Church of Christ in Abilene).

Case said her main priority as a lawmaker would be border security — the issue conservatives consistently rank as their top concern — and said the bills the House passed last year were insufficient.

“We need to get a backbone and do what’s right — a real border bill that doesn’t let them across the border, give them a lawyer, give them food, give them shelter,” Case said. “We need a representative that will do real border security.”

Last year, the Legislature passed some of the country’s strictest border laws including making crossing the Rio Grande illegally a state crime and a $1.5 billion appropriation for fencing and other barriers.

Texas House District 71 challenger Liz Case attends the monthly meeting of the Texas Retired Teachers Association Region 14 chapter at the Abilene Country Club Thursday Feb. 8, 2024.
Lambert’s Republican primary challenger Liz Case attends the monthly meeting of the Texas Retired Teachers Association Region 14 chapter at the Abilene Country Club on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. Credit: Ronald W. Erdrich for The Texas Tribune

At the Taylor County event, she also said the Legislature should rein in runaway home appraisals and work to abolish property taxes.

Despite Abbott’s endorsement — motivated by Lambert’s resistance to vouchers — Case’s support for the program was cautious at best. In an interview with radio host Chad Hasty, Case, a former public school teacher, said she is more supportive of vouchers than Lambert. But she said she would only support a voucher bill if it protected rural schools and “makes sense for everyone.”

“No matter what they do in the [next] Legislature, the vast majority of our students are always going to be educated in our public schools,” Case said. “That’s what we’ve got to focus on.”

While Case has a much shorter history of living in the district, she has been a prolific fundraiser since announcing her candidacy last year. Since November she has reported $323,000 in campaign contributions, about a third more than Lambert during that period.

Campaign signs for Texas House District 71 candidate Liz Case are displayed in a pickup at the Abilene Country Club Thursday Feb. 8, 2024. Case and District 71 incumbent Stan Lambert both were attending the monthly meeting of the Texas Retired Teachers Association Region 14 chapter.
Campaign signs for candidate Liz Case on a pickup outside the Abilene Country Club on Feb. 8, 2024. Credit: Ronald W. Erdrich for The Texas Tribune

Eighty-six percent of her contribution total came via a single check from Kathaleen Wall, a prominent Republican donor who spent $8.3 million of her own money when she ran unsuccessfully for a Houston-area U.S. House seat in 2020. Wall serves as the finance chair of Case’s campaign. Case and her husband, Dan, also reported loaning the campaign $200,000.

Case’s campaign spending includes bombarding the district with mailers attacking Lambert. They accuse him of being soft on border security. One criticized Lambert’s support for Democratic committee chairs in the House — a longtime bipartisan courtesy that has become a target of the far-right. It included an illustration of the Capitol dome with Lambert and three Democrats: former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

It is rare to have so much attention paid to a normally sleepy statehouse primary in West Texas, said Paul Fabrizio, a political science professor at McMurry University in Abilene. He said the contest is a proxy battle in the internecine dispute going on in the Texas Republican Party between the far-right and establishment factions.

Fabrizio, who has studied state politics in the region for 20 years, said Lambert is an affable and widely respected politician, due to his reputation as a “cautious conservative” who is not a rabble-rouser. But these characteristics may be drawbacks among a Republican primary electorate that increasingly wants zealous candidates who will not compromise on conservative principles, he said.

“Toothiana”, or the Tooth Fairy, one of the Storybook statues sprinkled throughout downtown Abilene, which is the official Storybook Capital of Texas, Saturday Feb. 10, 2024.
“Toothiana”, or the Tooth Fairy, one of the storybook statues scattered throughout downtown Abilene, the official Storybook Capital of Texas, on Saturday Feb. 10, 2024. Credit: Ronald W. Erdrich for The Texas Tribune
An oak is silhouetted against the sunset along County Road 461 in Callahan County Saturday Feb. 10, 2024. Texas House District 71 saw the addition of the county, which before had only included Taylor, Jones and Nolan counties, after the 2020 census and subsequent redistricting.
An oak is silhouetted against the sunset along County Road 461 east of Abilene in Callahan Co. on Saturday Feb. 10, 2024. Credit: Ronald W. Erdrich for The Texas Tribune
First: “Toothiana”, or the Tooth Fairy, one of the storybook statues scattered throughout downtown Abilene, the official Storybook Capital of Texas, on Saturday Feb. 10, 2024. Last: An oak is silhouetted against the sunset along County Road 461 east of Abilene in Callahan Co. Credit: Ronald W. Erdrich for The Texas Tribune

“There has been growing discontent, during the Trump presidency and afterwards, especially with the push about the border and school vouchers, for our state representative to be more aggressive,” Fabrizio said. “And that’s coming from the right wing of the Republican Party.”

Joy Ellinger, who runs a health care nonprofit and has long been active in local Republican politics, said Lambert’s ability to get along with almost anyone is an asset, not a liability. She praised his attention to issues plaguing the district, singling out a bill he passed with Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, to clear the way for a financially struggling regional hospital to merge with another.

John Hill, a real estate broker in Abilene, said he supports Lambert because of his deep roots in the community. He praised Lambert as an accessible representative who can help constituents or direct them to a government office that can. He said many residents are skeptical of Case because she has no experience in elected office and has not lived here long.

“She is not a part of this community, and she’s coming in to try and buy her way in,” Hill said.

Seven Republicans in District 71 that Case listed as supporters on her website did not respond to requests for comment.

Early voting in the primary began on Tuesday. Case got a last-minute boost: Her campaign announced that Abbott would campaign in Abilene next week with her.

Disclosure: University of Houston has been a financial supporter 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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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/22/stan-lambert-texas-house-abbott-paxton-primary/.

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