Things were looking good for William Negley, who was on track to make the runoff in the 18-way Republican primary for Texas' 21st Congressional District.
But just a few days before the March 6 election, radio and digital ads began popping up warning voters that after Donald Trump clinched the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, "Negley backed the idea of an independent campaign against him that could've divided Republicans and helped" Hillary Clinton.
The 11th-hour ads, deployed by an outside group supporting one of Negley's rivals, were based on him hitting the "like" button on a couple of tweets during the presidential race. One referenced a Politico story on Evan McMullin's independent bid and the other was from conservative writer David French, who called such a campaign a "national necessity."
On Election Day, Negley missed the runoff by just under 1,000 votes.
"We faced some unexpected campaign attacks in the last 96 hours of the race," Negley later told supporters in a somber Facebook video, "and ultimately fell just short of the votes needed to make the runoff."
Negley's demise was an early case study in how the presidential litmus test could shake up a Texas primary — and a sign of what was to come.
With just over a week until another Election Day — early voting starts Monday — nearly all six of the Republican congressional runoffs in Texas have turned into a pitched battle over who supports the president more, or who has done just about anything that could be construed as anti-Trump. It is playing out on debate stages, on TV and the radio, on social media and in mailboxes, sending candidates scrambling to prove their support for Trump.
The dynamic is predominantly driven by the Club for Growth, the national conservative group that was behind the Negley takedown. Its super PAC has spent more than $2 million on Texas primaries and runoffs this election cycle — much of that on ads trumpeting their candidates as Trump allies and attacking their opponents as hostile to the president.
David McIntosh, the Club for Growth's president, said in an interview that the group's polling shows Trump remains very popular among Texas primary voters, with his approval rating topping 90 percent in some districts.
"Republican primary voters — very much so in Texas but also around the country — want Congress to defend the president" and advance his agenda, McIntosh said. "They're frustrated with Republicans in Congress not getting more done. That's made it the No. 1 issue in these races."
In the 5th Congressional District, the Club has endorsed Bunni Pounds for the seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas — and spent lavishly to portray her opponent, state Rep. Lance Gooden of Terrell, as out of step with Trump on his signature policy achievement thus far. "Trump cut taxes, but Gooden backed higher taxes" in the Legislature, one ad alleges.
Gooden has cried foul over the attacks — as far back as the winter of 2016, he was traveling to South Carolina to campaign for Trump ahead of the state's primary. Gooden recently recorded a video message to supporters from a post office, waving a mail piece purporting to show him spray-painting devil horns on a portrait of the president.
"Folks, this is ridiculous," Gooden says in the video. "I was the earliest supporter of Trump of anyone in this race, and the negativity is outlandish."
In the 27th Congressional District — where U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, recently resigned — the Club has spent more than half a million dollars backing candidate Michael Cloud in the runoff and savaging his rival, Bech Bruun, as a "career bureaucrat" and "swamp creature" while highlighting Bruun's opposition to term limits. "No way will Bruun stand with Trump to change things in Washington," one ad says.
And in the 21st District — where the Club has endorsed Chip Roy to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio — it has even tried to drive a a wedge between Roy's opponent, Matt McCall, and Trump by comparing McCall to U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. One mailer accuses McCall of peddling "the same anti-Trump fake news as the liberal media and left-wing" politicians like Pelosi, citing a comment he made at a debate questioning Roy's ties to Cambridge Analytica, the embattled data firm that worked for Cruz's campaign before Trump's in the 2016 race.
McCall has called the mailer a "bold-faced lie" and proof that Roy's allies are getting desperate.
In that race, the Trump loyalty debate has not stopped there. More recently, Roy's campaign and its allies have pounced on a tongue-in-cheek comment McCall made at a forum Monday, saying he supports Trump's policies but would not necessarily want the president to be left alone with his daughters.
Ironically, the Club has its own complicated past with Trump — it spent millions of dollars trying to defeat him in the 2016 primary. That has not gone unnoticed by the Texas candidates whose pro-Trump credentials are now being assailed by the group.
"It is a Washington, D.C.-based special interest group that clearly has a history of being anti-Trump," Bruun said in an interview. "The feedback we get is that folks are ... highly suspicious [of] where this is all of a sudden coming from."
McIntosh shrugged off the criticism, saying it is no secret the Club had other preferences in the primary — it endorsed Cruz in the late stages of the nominating contest. But shortly after Trump won the nomination, the Club "helped him campaign on the free-market agenda," McIntosh said, and has supported many of his top priorities in the White House.
The Trump-fueled acrimony is also unfolding in Texas races where the Club is not involved. In the runoff for the 2nd Congressional District — where U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston, is not seeking re-election — Houston state Rep. Kevin Roberts has seized on a series of years-old Facebook posts from his opponent, Dan Crenshaw, to paint him as unfriendly to Trump. In a 2015 post that has drawn the most scrutiny from Roberts and his allies, Crenshaw writes that Trump's "insane rhetoric" toward Muslims "is hateful" and takes away from conversations around "the reform of Islam." He also calls Trump an idiot while writing of "equally ignorant liberals" on the other side of the debate.
In addition to Roberts, the Facebook post has incurred the wrath of a big-spending super PAC called Conservative Results Matter, which cites it in a dramatic TV ad that labels Crenshaw an "anti-Trump liberal."
Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, has pushed back on the line of attack by noting that — like many Republicans — Trump was not his first choice in the 2016 primary. But he got behind Trump when he became the nominee and has since been a strong supporter of his agenda.
Roberts, who says he voted for Trump in the Texas primary, is not buying it.
"You can say all day that 'I supported another candidate,' but it is dramatically different to have supported another candidate and then simultaneously call him an idiot, insane and ignorant, hateful," Roberts said. "That’s something you would expect Hillary [Clinton] to say, not someone who purports to be a conservative Republican."
For all the efforts to make presidential loyalty a central issue in the runoffs, the strategy had mixed results in the March 6 primaries. While it proved successful against contenders like Negley, there were ample examples of candidates who embraced Trump yet did not make the cut.
In the 2nd Congressional District, longtime GOP donor Kathaleen Wall spent millions of dollars airing TV ads, some of which made direct comparisons between her and the president, only to finish third behind Crenshaw and Roberts. And in the 21st District, Robert Stovall, the former chairman of the Bexar County GOP, fell short of runoff territory despite having a loyal supporter in Brad Parscale, the San Antonio native and top Trump campaign adviser, and releasing an ad that showed him promising to drain the swamp — while standing in a literal one.
Trump himself has not weighed in on any of the Texas congressional races, even as he has endorsed — and, in some cases, re-endorsed — all of Texas' statewide officials for re-election. The closest thing to a seal of approval from the White House is in the 5th District, where Vice President Mike Pence has backed Pounds to replace Hensarling, Pence's longtime friend and former House colleague who is also supporting Pounds.
Privately, some GOP operatives involved in the races acknowledge how absurd the battle for the pro-Trump upper hand has become. One likened it to a "game of limbo" where candidates are seeing how low they can go to position themselves as the most pro-Trump name on the ballot.
The Trump litmus test has left Democratic candidates licking their chops for the fall, even in traditionally Republican districts. They believe that their GOP rivals are making a deal with the devil, embracing the president to win over hardcore party loyalists in the primary, only to find a much less receptive electorate awaiting them in November.
"There are a lot of disaffected Republicans — I call them orphaned Republicans — who, now that we have the party of Trump and the Republican Party has been taken over by Trump, don’t feel like they have a home anymore," said Joseph Kopser, who is in a Democratic runoff with Mary Wilson to face either McCall or Roy in the 21st District. The two Republicans, Kopser added, "have wrapped themselves in such a dilemma that it is going to be fascinating to watch them try to thread this needle" in the fall.
The pro-Trump forces are undeterred. The Club in particular is not planning to let up in the final days before the May 22 runoffs.
Do Texas' Republican voters "want to go the play-it-safe route that [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell has been doing in the Senate, or do they want the bolder shake-up-the-place approach that Trump represents?" McIntosh asked. "From a national standpoint, I think Texas will set the tone for the rest of the country."
Disclosure: Joseph Kopser 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.