Conservatives in San Antonio are down to a single City Council seat, one county commissioner precinct and three state House seats in their control. In a Republican Party that's becoming increasingly ideologically divided, even those are getting tougher to protect.

State House Rep. Steve Allison's ouster in the March primary marked a major loss for the party's old guard, part of a steady rightward march for state-level Republicans who already control every statewide lever of power from the legislature to the governor's mansion.

But in Bexar County, where Democratic dominance has only increased in recent years, that rightward march is creating a downstream impact: diminished party infrastructure, a dearth of candidates and Republicans officials battling for relevance at the local level.

County Republicans lost the last of their judgeships in 2022, and didn't field a single challenger for bench seats on the ballot this November.

At an event last week seeking to generate interest in some of the political openings on the horizon, the party's entire slate of local candidates and officeholders fit easily at a single table, where questions from the audience focused mostly on their conservative credentials.

“No offense to you all, but I just didn't see us developing that next generation,” airline executive Lina Prado, a Republican running in Bexar County's deeply blue Precinct 1, said to the other panelists. “...This room right here, we should have an abundance of people wanting to get their name on the ballot ... and we don't.”

The newly formed San Antonio Young Republicans club, which hosted Thursday night's event, is the latest in a string of efforts aimed at building a new generation of candidates and activists on the right.

Former District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry participates in a San Antonio Young Republicans event at Blanco BBQ. Credit: Brenda Bazán / ISF FORUM

Yet that challenge has only gotten tougher while the city and county are in the midst of some of the biggest leadership turnover they've experienced in decades.

Longtime Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff's retirement after more than 20 years was met with such pessimism in 2022 that the county's only GOP commissioner, Trish DeBerry, was discouraged from running for his seat by political allies who viewed the race as unwinnable.

DeBerry made an 11th-hour entry to the race anyway — in the name of not letting an important role go unchallenged by her party — and wound up fending for herself against dark-money attacks ads in a contest where she took less than 40% of the vote.

“It was tough for me to even get a majority of Republicans, especially far-right Republicans, with me in the judge's race,” said DeBerry, who hails from the party's moderate wing, in an interview this week. “Why would anyone subject themself to that toxicity?”

As San Antonio now heads toward a slate of open city races in 2025, including its first truly open mayoral race since 2009, conservatives are indeed wary of finding themselves in a similar position even in races that are nonpartisan.

Possible contenders to be the conservative standard-bearer in the mayor's race currently include former Councilman Clayton Perry, whose political career was cut short by charges of driving while intoxicated and failing to stop after a hit-and-run crash in 2022. Perry, 68, drew applause when he announced he was “toying with the idea” of running for mayor at Thursday night's event.

Another candidate with Republican credentials, former Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, started a think tank this year to gather input on city policy direction, as a first step toward running for mayor without committing to a campaign.

But even a political action committee formed specifically to help pro-business candidates in San Antonio's city races — an umbrella that would theoretically capture more conservative types — has conceded that it's better off aligning with moderate Democrats in the current political landscape.

“There's not an effort to recruit Republicans to run for local office, if for no other reason than we're cognizant of where we live,” said Kelton Morgan, a San Antonio political strategist working for the PAC, called the San Antonio Equity Alliance.

However, partisan identity is not a factor in any decision that Equity Alliance makes in nonpartisan races, Kelton added.

Notably, some of the PAC's top brass has already signaled support for mayoral hopeful Beto Altamirano, a longtime Democratic staffer who now owns a technology company.

The San Antonio Equity Alliance helped install a conservative councilman in City Council District 10 last year, but that's considered the only district where such a candidate could run and win.

“We're a blueish dot in the middle of bright red Texas,” Morgan said. “The dot used to be purple, until crazy Republicans started getting ahold of things and running crazy people. Now Republicans have one pretty sure thing in terms of local government, and that's it.”

Candidates under pressure

In acknowledgement of the problems local Republicans have faced embracing the state party's approach of enforcing party purity tests, this year the Republican Party of Bexar County changed tacks with the selection of Kris Coons, who ran on a promise of making the party more inclusive.

That hasn't stopped party activists from seeking to punish officeholders who they see veering from conservative values, even at the local level.

At a Greater Harmony Hills Neighborhood Association meeting earlier this month attendees criticized Councilman Marc Whyte, who replaced Perry in District 10, for authoring a Council Consideration Request to facilitate development along new VIA bus lines they see as part of a bigger culture war.

Bexar County Commissioner Grant Moody (Pct. 3), whose 2022 election was once considered a victory for conservatives, also faced a well-funded primary challenger this year who said he hadn't done enough to push back on the court's Democrats.

At Thursday's gathering, Moody sought to rally Republicans back to his side ahead of a rematch with Democrat Susan Korbel this November in a precinct that's far from a sure bet for the GOP. Former President Donald Trump carried it by less than one percentage point in 2020.

Lina Prado, a candidate for Bexar County commissioner in Precinct 1, speaks at the San Antonio Young Republicans panel. Credit: Brenda Bazán / ISF FORUM

“[Republicans] have to understand the difference between fundamental differences in beliefs, versus differences in tactics,” Moody implored the audience of party faithful.

“There are different tactics that we as elected officials are going to have when we're operating behind the scenes as the lone Republican,” he said. “That's different than having fundamental differences in beliefs and ideology.”

Democrats who are eager to shut Republicans out of the county altogether sense opportunity arising from the divisions as they go after some of the county's last remaining GOP-held seats in the Texas Legislature this November.

They've labeled two of the San Antonio area's three Republican-held seats, House Districts 118 and 121, as some of their best prospects on the map to turn blue.

In those races, State House Rep. John Lujan (R-Texas House District 118) is seeking reelection in a tough Southside district that leans Democratic — but House District 121 only piqued Democrats' interest after Allison lost the primary to conservative challenger Marc LaHood.

The talent pipeline

With that primary loss, Allison joins a growing list of past and potential future Republican officeholders who've been effectively sidelined while warring factions of their own party fight it out.

Former state House Speaker Joe Straus declined to seek reelection at a time when party leaders were seeking to force him out in 2018. DeBerry's predecessor in Precinct 3, Kevin Wolff, made the same call when Trump loyalists started gaining power statewide in 2020, as did former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, who lives northwest of San Antonio in Helotes.

“It’s no secret that there’s been a lot of division,” said Paul James Jr., president of the Young Republicans of Bexar County, which has in the past helped recruit new local candidates. “Some folks won't make that investment of time and energy if they don't see the party is in a place to support them.”

Traditionally, party structures help with tasks like organizing get-out-the-vote efforts, phone banks and developing a bench of young leaders who will someday run for office. Though the county party's new conservative leaders made every effort to replicate that structure after taking power, the results haven't been the same.

“There's a bit of a cultural divide [among Republicans], and one [group] won't let the other succeed,” said Patty Gibbons, a conservative activist who ran unsuccessfully for San Antonio's Council District 9 in 2021.

“[The Trump loyalists] had all the energy, but didn't have the smarts,” Gibbons said. “And then you have those who've been doing this a long time, who have all the smarts and experience, but they don't like new newcomers coming in.”

One piece of political infrastructure that's withstood the changes is a group of neighborhood leaders on the North Side, the Northeast Neighborhood Alliance, which has had a lock on the District 10 council seat for years.

They took bold measures to protect their talent pipeline after Perry's incident last year, urging him out of the race for a fourth term in District 10 and helping install Whyte, a 43 year-old-attorney, as his replacement. Less than a year into the job, Whyte was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated.

Some are frustrated there isn't more of a bench to pull from. Prado blamed Republicans for their singular focus on the Northside, where their long-held City Council district and commissioners court seat are located.

Another up-and-coming candidate that party leaders were excited about for state House District 117, Ben Mostyn, was charged with a DWI last month, along with unlawful carrying of a weapon.

Perry, meanwhile, who's floated himself for mayor at the same time he's working to rehabilitate his political image, said he still views himself as one of conservatives' most viable candidates in 2025.

‘”I've had a life of service and I don't feel that I'm finished yet,” Perry told the young conservatives at Thursday's event. “I think that I still have some kick in me to do some good things for this for this city and for the state.”

The last San Antonio mayor to come straight from the private sector was Phil Hardberger in 2005. Ivy Taylor, appointed in 2014, had some conservative appeal. But Mayor Ron Nirenberg beat her in 2017 and defeated conservative challenger Greg Brockhouse twice — in a runoff in 2019, then handily in 2021. Conservatives didn't find a candidate to rally behind in 2023.

But from Morgan's perspective, the conservative lane to become mayor is so thin that it may not exist.

“There is always a clear pathway for the Northside white guy to get to 40-plus percent of the vote,” he said. “That will get you to a runoff — that doesn't get you out of it.”

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the ISF FORUM. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.