If pressed to name the most conservative member of Harris County's delegation to the Texas Legislature, most people in local political circles would offer up Debbie Riddle, the Republican state rep from Tomball who once said the idea of a free education “comes straight out of the pit of hell,” who warned on national cable news of sleeper “terrorist” babies born on American soil, and who somehow managed to mock Black Lives Matter protesters with a Bible verse.
Conservative to most people, that is, except for hardliners intent on purifying the state Republican party the best way they know how: the GOP primary.
On a national level, this primary season has been one for the history books, one in which the leading Republican presidential contender skyrocketed to front-runner status by calling Mexicans “rapists,” suggesting the United States return to “Operation Wetback”-era immigration policies, and saying he'd “absolutely” implement a national registry for Muslims in the country. As the circus ramps up ahead of contests in major primary states, the bickering between candidates has become increasingly venomous – even between former pals (on the surface, at least) Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
In deep-red Texas, however, such heated, race-to-the-bottom primaries are nothing new.
“It's Republican on Republican violence season,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor and political analyst at the University of Houston, who called the looming primary battle for Debbie Riddle's House District 150 “a perfect example of the infighting that has engulfed the Republican Party in the state.” Valoree Swanson, Riddle's main primary opponent, has already received the endorsements of hard-line conservative groups like Empower Texans and a who's who of local conservative activists like Steve Hotze and Jared Woodfill. On her Facebook page, she frequently refers to Riddle as “the establishment incumbent.”
First elected to the seat in 2002, Riddle quickly became one of the more acerbic conservative voices in the House. She wound up on Texas Monthly's “Worst Legislators” list her very first session when, following testimony about health issues along the border, she told the El Paso Times: “Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education, free medical care, free whatever? It comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell.”
Riddle rose to national prominence (or ridicule, depending on your perspective) following a 2010 interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper in which she claimed unnamed former FBI officials had warned her about pregnant women from the Middle East traveling to America as tourists to have babies – U.S. citizen babies that would then be raised overseas, radicalized and trained to commit acts of terrorism when they returned to their country of birth. Among her main points in that brain-wrinkling interview: “If they are over here illegally, then they are not here legally.”
In fact, Riddle's been among the most zealous in her caucus on the anti-immigrant front. In late 2010, ahead of the 82nd Texas Legislature, Riddle camped out at the Texas Capitol in order to be the first to file bills that would subject undocumented immigrants to state criminal trespass charges, eliminate so-called “Sanctuary Cities,” and force state agencies and public schools to report immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally. She later filed another bill that would've made hiring an “unauthorized alien” a crime punishable by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine – unless, that is, said “alien” was hired to do household chores.
Riddle has also taken a blunt, hard-right stance on social issues like abortion and LGBT rights. As reproductive rights advocates in 2013 took to the Capitol to cheer on Wendy Davis's filibuster of the omnibus anti-abortion law now before the U.S. Supreme Court, Riddle took to Facebook to compare them to Hitler. In the 2015 legislative session, Riddle filed a gender-policing bill that would criminalize anyone whose chromosomes don't match the restroom that person uses (small government, indeed).
Hard-line conservatives' opposition to Riddle seems to be rooted in a couple of key votes from the 2015 legislative session. The first involved a strange, convoluted standoff between conservative and super conservative members in the House over two anti-abortion measures. Rep. Jonathan Stickland, the defender of conservative principles who's now apologizing for old comments advocating marital rape, had reportedly agreed to drop an amendment that ended the exception to the 20-week abortion ban for cases of severe fetal abnormalities. In exchange, the more moderate House leadership would ease the way for passage of a Senate bill banning insurance providers in Texas from covering abortions.
An actual fight almost broke out between members when that plan imploded on Stickland and his anti-abortion supporters, evidently because three Republicans — including Riddle, Patricia Harless and Sarah Davis of West U (already a target of social conservatives for being openly pro-choice) — voted with Democrats to keep the bill from being scheduled for a vote. Riddle and Harless would change their votes later that day, but the bill made it out of committee so late it never came up for a vote before the clock ran out. Whether because of political jockeying or sheer confusion, Riddle's vote remains a mystery.
Staunch conservatives' other main knock against Riddle is that she disagrees with them on exactly what an anti-Sharia law bill should look like. Seriously.
There's plenty of reason for Riddle's campaign to be worried at this point. Two of the groups that have endorsed Swanson, her opponent, clearly know how to boot incumbent Republicans from office. In the 2014 primaries, for instance, candidates backed by Empower Texans won in about 70 percent of primary races, according to analysis by Rottinghaus at UH. Candidates backed by Texas Right to Life, which has evidently abandoned Riddle, won in 90 percent of primary races.
“Purity is the source of the trouble,” Rottinghaus said. “If a candidate strays even a little from the pure faith, they're chastised by groups that are looking for acolytes.”