Two Powerful Incumbents Already Have 2016 Foes

State Reps. Charlie Geren and Jim Keffer, once among the vanguard as Republicans took control of the House, already have challengers who will try to outflank them to the right in 2016.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, talks with colleagues on the floor during discussion on school finance Friday afternoon May 27, 2011.

Between them, state Reps. Charlie Geren and Jim Keffer have logged more than three decades in the Texas House, with the ensuing plum committee positions and experience manipulating the levers of legislative power. Geren, a Fort Worth rancher, and Keffer, from Eastland, arrived in Austin among the vanguard as Republicans solidified House control, and have risen since. 

But both men find themselves entering the final month of this session with opponents already signed up to take them on in next year's elections, the latest Republican targets of insurgent candidates hoping to outflank incumbents on the right.

Bo French and Mike Lang have already filed to challenge the two in their 2016 Republican primaries. French is challenging Geren; Lang will take on Keffer.

The challengers appear ready to use a well-known playbook in ruby-red Texas: Run to the right and make the case to party activists that their representative has grown out of step with their interests. 

"It's a long shot — it's a very long shot, because these are two strong Republican incumbents," said Allan Saxe, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. But, Saxe and others said, French and Lang stand an outside chance if they can capitalize on their early starts by raising the money — namely with the help of the outside groups that dominate GOP primaries in Texas — boosting their name ID, and zeroing in on the incumbents' perceived weaknesses as they navigate the politically perilous final weeks of the session.

French's challenge is a little more personal than Lang's — his family and the Gerens have been close for multiple generations. French is now setting out to convince voters they should fire a man whom he counts as a lifelong acquaintance.

"I respect his service in office," French wrote in an email. "I think everyone who knows us both would say he is significantly more moderate than I am."

Geren said Monday he plans to run for a ninth term in House District 99, which makes up the northwestern corner of Tarrant County. Keffer has not yet made an official announcement about to seeking an 11th term in HD-60, which covers eight counties sprawling west of the Metroplex.

Both incumbents emphasized this week they are focused on their jobs as lawmakers, not running for re-election.

"With the session in full swing and with our rural representation decreasing with every census, protecting the values and economies of rural Texas demands my undivided attention," Keffer said in a statement Tuesday. 

Geren welcomed the challenge, saying he does not discount any opponent.

"I take everybody seriously," Geren said, adding that he has already told French he "better be ready to raise some money, because I am." 

Mike Olcott, a major donor to conservative legislative candidates, said he expects the French-Geren race to be the most expensive House contest in 2016, with Geren spending north of $2 million. Geren had nearly $800,000 in his campaign account at the end of last year, according to state records.

Geren's vulnerability, Olcott said, will be drawing a contrast between his voting record and the political inclinations of conservative constituents.

"Mr. Geren has been able to fool them, even some of my friends, into thinking that Charlie Geren is one of the more conservative members down in Austin when every scorecard and ranking that I've seen throws him at the bottom of the Republican Party," Olcott said.

French most recently was the chief operating officer of Craft International, the tactical training company started by late Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. Before that, French worked in hedge-fund management in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

French's business relationship with Kyle has been in headlines over the past few years. After Kyle, who inspired the blockbuster movie American Sniper, was killed, French and his business partners wrangled with the sniper's widow in court over the future of the Craft International, which is now winding down. 

Both sides say the issue has been resolved. Taya Kyle declined to comment on French's candidacy through a spokesman earlier this month.

On the issues, French counts lowering taxes as one of his top priorities. The House and Senate are currently at odds over how to cut taxes and by how much. 

"Tax cuts of all flavors are always a good thing but I think we need to be even more bold," French wrote. Asked whether he was saying neither chamber's current tax-relief plans go far enough, French replied, "We'll see what this session ends up with and then we will know." 

A former longtime police officer, Lang entered politics several years ago as a constable in Hood County, the most populous county in HD-60. Hood County is also where Keffer's primary challenger in 2014 beat him by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

Lang, whose wife, Katie, is the Hood County clerk, recently resigned as constable to focus full-time on his House campaign. He said his top issue is "representation," reiterating what he sees as a gulf between Keffer's voting record at the Capitol and his district's political interests.

"The longer you're down there, the more you get a little liberal and worry about what's going on in Austin of what people really want," Lang said.

It's a refrain that has driven many successful — and unsuccessful — primary challenges. Even if French and Lang do not prevail, Saxe suggested their efforts could still have meaning.

They could "awaken these incumbents," the political science professor said. "It could be an alarm bell that somebody's after me very early."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Arlington is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.