Can a Hillary-Voting Republican Thrive in Texas?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there are plenty of political orphans these days.
By Daniel Malloy
The most creative suggestion came to Jenifer Sarver from a friend’s mother: “Can you just take that off the Google?” “That” being the No. 7 result when you search Sarver’s name: an op-ed she penned for the Dallas Morning News in October 2016 with the headline “How you can be a pro-life Christian and still support Hillary Clinton.”
It’s not a popular position in a Republican primary campaign. But Sarver wouldn’t scrub her search results even if she could. If she hadn’t publicly aired her concerns about Donald Trump — taking the heat, along with private praise from some fellow Republicans — she would not have had the courage to step forward when her local congressman retired. She wouldn’t be duking it out in an 18-person primary as a bourbon-drinking, Longhorn-boosting Texas Republican who is determined to take her damned party back.
When you look at a party that’s nationalistic, anti-immigrant and anti-gay, that’s not really a welcoming place for [young people].
Sarver, 41, is less a moderate than a Republican from a decade ago (her support for gay marriage being a notable exception). And yet she now feels like a political orphan, abandoned along the rocky road from the tea party to Trump, but unable to jump on a Democratic Party drifting left. At a wine bar in Fredericksburg, a picturesque town in the Hill Country where vineyards line the highway, following yet another candidate forum, she gives OZY her anodyne yet revolutionary pitch: Civility First. “I wish that wasn’t a bold move,” Sarver says. “But it is.”
She grew up 4.5 hours south of here in the Rio Grande Valley, where pre-prom dinners were held across the border in Mexico and her family would deliver Christmas presents to needy families living in shantytowns called colonias — on the U.S. side. The daughter of a minister and an educator, she came up with a service bent and a mostly Mexican group of friends. “She was always moving,” says her father, Barney Sarver. “From when she was about 2 years old on, she was very bold, not shy or fearful at all.”
After the University of Texas at Austin, Sarver headed north to an anthrax-rattled Capitol Hill just after 9/11 to climb the staffer ladder, working for Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and then the George W. Bush Commerce Department as director of speechwriting. In a town built on transactional relationships, she stood out for her networking prowess, says Jamie McWright, who worked in the Senate alongside Sarver. McWright, now president of the Associated Republicans of Texas, says Sarver “knows what’s going on in everyone’s life and how to be in touch at the right moment.”
She returned to Austin in 2009 to work in public relations under Karen Hughes — a top Bush White House aide — before launching her own shop. All the while she was laying the groundwork for a run for office. But when her local congressman, 30-year veteran Lamar Smith, announced last fall he was retiring, Sarver had to grapple with her public opposition to the president — and a massive field of primary foes.
State Rep. Jason Isaac, who’s running as a “principled Christian conservative” on a promise to “Make America Like Texas,” tells OZY that when he courts voters on their doorsteps, he’s constantly asked whether he will have Trump’s back. When he talks about banning Sharia, “more than any other issue, I would say that draws more applause and more support,” Isaac says. (Dallas-area Muslims drew controversy a few years back when they started offering Sharia-compliant nonbinding mediation.) Sarver rolls her eyes at such red meat for primary voters. “It’s not a real issue,” she says.
Brendan Steinhauser, a consultant for Susan Narvaiz, the former San Marcos mayor and current primary rival, says he’s sympathetic with Sarver’s Trump criticisms and push to make the Republican Party more inclusive. And it might have worked had she voted third party, or write-in, in 2016. Instead, Republican voters say: “‘Oh yeah, you’re the one who voted for Hillary,’ and they don’t want to hear anything after that,” Steinhauser says.
Sarver, who has worked her network to stay competitive in fundraising, says with 18 candidates competing in the March 6 primary, she can tap a quiet base looking for a reasonable voice in order to make a two-candidate runoff. Sarver says she would have voted for the new tax law, but would have opposed the failed Obamacare repeal because there was not a good enough replacement on the table. She considers eliminating federal agencies an impractical talking point, but she wants to slash spending. She wants to better secure the border, but is against mass deportations. She favors free trade and lauds the benefits of NAFTA.
While Texas’ 21st District, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio and juts out into the Hill Country, has been reliably Republican, analysts say Democrats have a shot in a wave year. Yet Sarver’s quest is bigger than this race. She wants to join a younger, more “pragmatic” clique from both parties in Congress. Hearing her primary opponents chase right-wing voters, she worries the GOP is losing a generation that is gettable. “When you look at a party that’s nationalistic, anti-immigrant and anti-gay, that’s not really a welcoming place for” young people, says Sarver, who is single. “And I think that they’re probably more fiscally conservative and socially liberal than a lot of people say.”
In her spare time, Sarver is a sucker for superhero movies, which she watches with her brothers. Her tale at times feels like a lonely crusade, but she’s not done fighting yet.