Racist comments and conspiracies from local Republican officials around Texas are making it difficult for the GOP to control its message as it gears up for the November election.
Cynthia Brehm, Republican Party Chair of Bexar County, made national headlines when she spread a COVID-19 conspiracy theory at a rally in late May.
“All of this has been promulgated by the Democrats to undo all the good that President Trump has done for our country and they are worried,” she said. “So take off your mask, exercise your constitutional rights, stand up, speak up and vote Republican.”
A few days later, Brehm posted a conspiracy theory on Facebook saying the police killing of George Floyd was staged.
She then liked a tweet asserting that Governor Greg Abbott’s office has been infiltrated by clones. The tweet also said “[Cynthia Brehm] was right, mind control is at work on many in USA.”
@GovAbbott Gov, how many in your group are now Clonaid clones, start seperating the clones from the real humans and our country will get back into better order, Clonaid is using those clones to take over USA, @CynthiaBrehmTx was right, mind control is at work on many in USA
— Vickie Gail (@UseWisdom1st) June 15, 2020
Brehm declined TPR's request for comment.
In Kerr County, Republican county commissioner Harley Belew called George Floyd a “thug.”
“And somebody that dies with the cops knee on their neck has probably done something wrong to get the cops called there,” he said.
Harris County GOP chair-elect, Keith Nielsen, shared a social media post of a Martin Luther King Jr. quote next to a photo of a banana. Three other county chairs shared and posted racist comments on social media.
The state’s GOP establishment quickly went into damage control mode.
Governor Greg Abbott called for Brehm and Jim Kaelin — the Nueces County Republican party chair who also shared a conspiracy theory about George Floyd's death — to resign.
Joining the condemnation, the state’s top Republican, Texas GOP chair James Dickey, said all five county chairs should step down.
“Their actions do not reflect the Republican Party of Texas’ history, values, members, or principles,” he said in a press release. “We connect with people through and because of our values, and our leaders must exemplify them.”
When asked by TPR how the racist comments affect public perception of the GOP, Dickey turned the focus to the “mainstream media,” which he believes overemphasized the comments.
“It is unfortunate when individuals reinforce false narratives that have existed,” he said.
He said the actions of about half a dozen elected officials don’t reflect the true values of the party.
But according to one GOP strategist, racist comments and outlandish conspiracies from local Republican officials could affect independent voters — and this is the group that decides most Texas elections, according to experts.
And current polls have Joe Biden and Donald Trump neck and neck in the state ahead of November.
“I think Texas is more up for grabs than ever,” said Brendan Steinhauser. He’s the co-founder and partner at Steinhauser Strategies, a political consulting firm that primarily works with Republicans.
He said the state GOP initially looked strong heading into 2020, with a strong economy to boast. But, he said, independent voters are turned off by polarization, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, the economic downturn and the headline-grabbing comments from local officials.
He thinks independents might just stay home in November.
“I think they're probably at the point of just saying ‘a plague on both your houses,’ to both political parties,” he said. “Because they tend to like certain things that Republicans have done in terms of policies on, you know, job creation, economics, that sort of thing. But maybe they side with the Democrats on some issues, as well. And so they're probably looking at this whole situation and saying, you know, we don't support either of you. So we might see a depressed turnout in the fall.”
He compared Cynthia Brehm to Robert Morrow, the former chair of the Travis County GOP and current candidate for the State Board of Education. Morrow has a history of conspiracy mongering, misogyny and racist comments. He’s been widely disavowed by the party establishment, but did well enough on Super Tuesday to make it to the runoff. Steinhauser said the Democratic establishment also has similar issues with certain radical elements.
According to him, Brehm- and Morrow-type GOP county chairs are on the fringe of the GOP, and the establishment has made efforts to push them out.
“When someone says something outrageous or pedals a conspiracy, [establishment Republicans] try and condemn them, both from within the executive committee, and from the top — from the governor and the state party chairman on down,” he said. “I think it's an important thing to do.”
Even though the state GOP has disavowed these local officials, other Republican incumbents are tied to the most prominent Republican in the county. President Donald Trump has a history of racist and conspiratorial comments.
But, Steinhauser said, it might be easier for a first time candidate to maintain distance from the President. This could help whoever emerges from the GOP runoff in the 23rd congressional district, a key swing area where Republican incumbent Will Hurd decided to not seek reelection.
“You're running as your own person. You don't have that record,” he said. “But if you're a member of Congress, you voted either to impeach or not to impeach, you voted to support him on policies or to oppose him on policies.”
In Bexar County, Cynthia Brehm has refused to resign. She is now the underdog in a July 14 runoff primary against challenger John Austin, who got 100 more votes than her on Super Tuesday. The race could be one small litmus test for what GOP voters will tolerate, and the outcome could change the public face of one local Republican party.
TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.