State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, on the Senate floor on April 11, 2019. Credit: Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

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Heading into election season, Amarillo state Sen. Kel Seliger says he feels like members of his own party might be using redistricting to oust him after years of tension with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a fellow Republican.

Seliger is deciding whether he will even run for reelection, but if he does, he is now staring down perhaps his toughest primary yet.

He has received two primary challengers, including Kevin Sparks, a Midland oilman who previously served on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Austin-based conservative think tank. Meanwhile, Seliger’s district was redrawn by his Republican colleagues in the Senate in a way that he says is designed to hobble a potential reelection bid.

And on Tuesday, former President Donald Trump, a close ally of Patrick, endorsed Sparks and bashed Seliger as a “RINO” — Republican in name only — in a rare intervention in a Texas legislative race by the former president.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Seliger offered only five words in response to the endorsement: “It comes as no surprise.”

But the senator has otherwise been outspoken about his proposed new district, alleging it was constructed to tilt the primary in favor of Sparks. While he is waiting until after the redistricting process is done to decide whether to seek reelection, Seliger said the perceived effort to draw him into a harder primary would backfire because the new counties are still rural — and local officials in those counties “hate TPPF because they are virulently anti-local control.”

“This map doesn’t serve the purpose that was sought because these are rural counties, and I almost always win all the rural counties,” Seliger said.

The proposed new district removes four counties from the Panhandle and adds a dozen to the southern end of the district, closer to Midland. The Senate approved the map proposal Monday, with Seliger as the only Republican voting against it.

“I believe, members, that really what this is about is to take counties out of the Panhandle and move them closer to Midland because a member of the board of Texas Public Policy Foundation is running,” Seliger said on the floor before the vote.

He confirmed after the vote that he was referring to Sparks, a former board member — and that he “absolutely” felt the district was being redrawn to advantage his opponent.

Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who chairs the Senate Redistricting Committee, defended the proposed new configuration of Seliger’s district, saying the additional counties were necessary to make up for lost population in the 2020 census.

Patrick’s chief political strategist, Allen Blakemore, scoffed at Seliger’s claims in a statement Wednesday.

​​“After spending 17 years working against the interests of conservatives, often being the only Republican to vote with Democrats on key issues and being ranked as the most liberal Member year after year, Senator Seliger now feels there is an elaborate scheme designed to thwart his election,” Blakemore said. “The timing speaks for itself.”

Patrick himself has not publicly commented on Seliger’s primary. But during a trip to Midland last week, Patrick told the Permian Basin Petroleum Association that the Senate needs an oil and gas expert — which Sparks happens to be.

Trump’s endorsement of Sparks arrived Tuesday evening, less than two hours after Seliger cast the lone Republican vote against a Patrick priority bill clearing the way for party officials to trigger election audits. Seliger reportedly said he opposed the legislation because it is an “unfunded mandate of the counties, and I’m opposed to big government.”

Trump said in a statement that Seliger ​​“is not helpful to our great [Make America Great Again] Movement and, in fact, seems like the Texas version of Mitt Romney (and that is not good!).”

Seliger has become known for bucking Patrick on his signature issues. In 2017, Seliger voted against two of Patrick’s highest priorities, a bill restricting local governments’ abilities to raise property tax revenues and another one providing private school vouchers. The next session, Patrick stripped Seliger of his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee, prompting a back and forth with Patrick’s office that escalated to Seliger issuing a recommendation that a top Patrick adviser kiss his “back end.” (Seliger ultimately apologized, but only for directing the comment at the adviser and not at Patrick himself.)

A former Amarillo mayor, Seliger has represented Senate District 31 in the Panhandle since 2004. He has gone through competitive primaries before, including the last time he ran for reelection in 2018, when he faced two challengers: Amarillo restaurateur Victor Leal and former Midland Mayor Mike Canon. Seliger narrowly avoided a runoff against Canon, winning 50.4% of the vote.

Patrick publicly swore off involvement in that race, but his top political lieutenant, Blakemore, was involved in Leal’s campaign. At the time, Patrick was running in his own primary for reelection — and Seliger had declined to join every other GOP senator in endorsing the lieutenant governor for another term.

Three years later, Patrick possesses no stronger ally against Seliger than Trump. Both of Trump’s Texas campaigns were chaired by the lieutenant governor.

Trump is overwhelmingly popular in the Panhandle, where he has already reshaped GOP representation with his 2020 backing of his former White House doctor, Ronny Jackson, for the 13th Congressional District. Campaigning heavily on Trump’s support, Jackson soundly defeated fellow Republican Josh Winegarner in a primary runoff where Winegarner had much stronger local roots and the support of the retiring incumbent, Mac Thornberry, as well as Seliger.

Trump won Seliger’s Senate District 31 with 78% of the vote last year. He performed better in only one other Senate district.

Sparks celebrated the Trump endorsement in a fundraising email Wednesday night, saying the former president “realizes that the people of Senate District 31 deserve more conservative representation.”

Sparks is formally kicking off his campaign Monday in Midland, where he has already assembled a formidable list of endorsements. It includes Seliger’s two 2018 primary challengers, Canon and Leal; several former Midland mayors; and heavy-hitting conservative donors from the area like Tim Dunn, Douglas Scharbauer and Dick Saulsbury.

Seliger’s other primary rival is Big Spring businesswoman Stormy Bradley. She is undeterred by recent developments, saying in a statement Wednesday that neither the proposed new district nor Trump endorsement “affect my campaign strategy for Senate District 31.”

“I myself resonate with Trump’s message to ‘Make America Great Again’ as I also am passionate towards having a thriving and secure nation,” Bradley said. “I appreciate his concern for our citizens; however, I feel the voters in District 31 are best suited to determine their next senator.”

As for the proposed new district, Seliger did not mince words Tuesday. He said “the only reason verbalized to me” in a meeting with Huffman “was a desire to provide distinct oil-and-gas districts and distinct agriculture districts.” He disputed that, saying the proposed map “doesn’t do that at all,” and also dismissed the idea the new 31st District would adhere to the redistricting principle of compactness — keeping constituents as close together as possible — noting how far the north-south distance of the district would grow.

Huffman also noted that the partisan makeup of voters in the proposed new district is the most favorable one for GOP candidates.

“Sen. Seliger, I still believe you have a very compact district considering the population and the breadth of West Texas and the beauty of West Texas,” Huffman said. “You also still have the most Republican Senate district in the state of Texas.”

Seliger had offered an amendment to restore the four Panhandle counties and add different counties surrounding Midland but withdrew it, saying he wanted to spare colleagues a “difficult vote.”

Sparks has no problem with the redrawn district.

​​”Everyone understands that rural Texas has lost population, so it’s only natural that rural districts are larger under the proposed redistricting plan,” he said in a statement. “Instead of lodging petty attacks, our rural communities must stand together to amplify our voice in Austin.”

Disclosure: Permian Basin Petroleum Association, Stand Together and Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters 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.

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