GOP primary in Texas tests how far Trump loyalty should extend

Candidate refunds contribution from friend and fellow veteran Kinzinger

Retired U.S. Navy SEAL Morgan Luttrell, left, a candidate in the 8th District Republican primary in Texas, speaks on a panel with his brother, Marcus Luttrell, during the Conservative Political Action Conference last July in Dallas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Retired U.S. Navy SEAL Morgan Luttrell, left, a candidate in the 8th District Republican primary in Texas, speaks on a panel with his brother, Marcus Luttrell, during the Conservative Political Action Conference last July in Dallas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Posted February 17, 2022 at 5:30am

Morgan Luttrell was a retired Navy SEAL with powerful connections in the Republican Party when he received a check from the leadership PAC of Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a prominent critic of former President Donald Trump. 

That $5,000 check has since become a sticking point in Luttrell’s bid to replace retiring GOP Rep. Kevin Brady in a crowded primary in Texas' 8th District. 

The March 1 contest in a Republican stronghold north of Houston is the first major test during the 2022 primary season of how far Republicans are willing to go to adopt Trump’s personal grievances, along with his politics. 

As the race enters its final days, Republican figures representing competing power centers in Texas and Washington have lined up behind Luttrell, a former Energy Department appointee in the Trump administration, and Christian Collins, a former political aide to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz

Both candidates have touted photos of themselves with the former president on social media and offered full-throated support for Trump, including his baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen. 

But Collins has showcased support from the more extreme figures in the post-Trump GOP, while Luttrell has maintained relationships with some who have drawn the ire of the far right.

The contrast was put on display during a recent candidate forum, when Collins called Kinzinger a “traitor to our country” and pressured Luttrell to admit that he had solicited the check, according to a video of the event posted on Facebook by the sponsor. 

That was one step too far for Luttrell. He criticized Kinzinger’s service on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol as “bad for the Republican Party.”  But he acknowledged that Kinzinger, a fellow Navy SEAL, is “absolutely” a friend and said, “I don’t hate him.”

“I don’t agree with anything Adam says politically anymore,” he said. “But the man is not a traitor to his country. He fought in a war for his country. How are you gonna call that man a traitor, when he put his life on the line, left his family to do that?”

At the forum, Luttrell said he talked with Kinzinger early in his campaign and accepted Kinzinger’s offer to send a check, but that he sent it back when his campaign team told him, “that doesn’t jell here in this campaign space.” 

Federal Election Commission records show that Future First Leadership PAC, which Kinzinger controls, reported a $5,000 contribution on July 21 to Texans for Morgan Luttrell. Luttrell’s committee reported depositing the funds on Aug. 8 and then refunding them on Nov. 12.  

The battle over support from Kinzinger is minor compared to the divisions that rocked the GOP in the run-up to Trump’s 2016 election, a time when Cruz was the last candidate trying to deny Trump the nomination at the Republican National Convention. But it is a preview of what may be to come in the 2022 primary season, which opens in the aftermath of the Republican National Committee’s censure of Kinzinger and fellow Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming for their impeachment votes and positions on the Jan. 6 committee.

“The party is struggling to find candidates who appeal to the far right, who vote in primaries, and the general election crowd,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist who hosts the "Party Politics" podcast. “This is what the party has been grappling with: how to toggle between complete loyalty to President Trump and being their own person.” 

He noted that military veterans with profiles similar to Luttrell’s have recently been held up as prime recruits by national Republicans, partly because of their perceived ability to appeal to broad sections of the party. 

“This is a battle for the heart and soul of our country between my opponent — an establishment politician who wants to go along to get along in Washington D.C . — and myself — someone who will always fight for President Trump, the America First agenda, and the forgotten men and women of TX-8,” Collins said in a statement provided to CQ Roll Call. Luttrell’s campaign did not reply to a request for comment. 

The 8th District will draw in some more moderate voters under new district lines approved by the state legislature in October. Under the new lines, Trump would have carried the district by 27 percentage points in 2020, compared with 43 points under the old configuration. The race is rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. 

Luttrell has a fundraising advantage in the crowded contest, with $1.9 million in receipts and $1.6 million in cash on hand as of Dec. 31. Collins, by comparison, had raised $334,000 and had $288,000 on hand Dec. 31, while former Navy Judge Advocate General Jonathan Hullihan had raised $179,000 and had $87,000 on hand. Four other Republicans raised $33,000 or less each, according to FEC filings. 

Luttrell is the twin brother of Marcus Luttrell, whose first-person account of a mission in Afghanistan, "Lone Survivor," was turned into a movie. Morgan Luttrell also has a high-profile advocate in former Gov. Rick Perry, who famously befriended both brothers and brought Morgan Luttrell to the Energy Department after he was appointed by Trump to head it. 

Perry was among Luttrell’s earliest endorsers and is holding a rally for him in Conroe on Saturday. Luttrell also has endorsements from Texas Reps. Dan Crenshaw, who has become one of the House GOP’s most recognizable figures since he was elected in 2018, and Jake Ellzey, who won a special election last summer against a Trump-endorsed opponent. Crenshaw and Ellzey are also veterans.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Republican leadership, is also backing Luttrell.  

But elements of the party have also lined up against him. The only outside spending in the race so far has come from super PACs aligned with the House Freedom Fund, the fundraising arm of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, and groups called Texans for Freedom and Keep Texas Great, which have spent $876,000 to support Collins.  

Beyond working for Cruz when he ran against Trump, Collins has held at least one position anathema to the current Republican Party. He wrote a college thesis paper in 2013 arguing for the party to adopt a more lenient position on amnesty toward immigrants. He has since distanced himself from that view, and he has nevertheless attracted the backing of populist firebrands Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn, who represent House districts in Georgia and North Carolina, respectively. Both plan to travel to Texas to rally for him on Saturday. 

Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, one of Trump’s most vocal defenders in the House and a Freedom Caucus member, has backed Hullihan. 

Both Collins and Hullihan have promised to join the House Freedom Caucus if they are elected. Luttrell declined to make that pledge, asserting at the candidate forum that he supports their “conservative values” but that he would wait to join any caucus until after arriving in Washington.  

Collins, meanwhile, is attacking Luttrell for accepting support from Crenshaw, who faced backlash from some on the far right when he warned last month of “grifters” and “performance artists” in the GOP while he sat next to Luttrell on stage at an event. Luttrell also campaigned with GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas, one of 35 House Republicans who voted for the commission to investigate the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. 

Turning to the audience at the candidate forum last week, Collins rattled off the names of those supporters, pausing when he mentioned Crenshaw to say his name “speaks for itself.” He continued: “My question is, which team do you want to be on?”