Everyone in the room is smiling. Missy Shorey, the first woman ever elected to chair the Dallas County Republican Party, nods her head and opens her eyes wide. Her executive director sits next to us, smiling the wan smile of someone slightly petrified her outspoken new boss will say something too quotable. The life-size cardboard cutout of Ronald Reagan, staring at me from over Shorey’s left shoulder, smirks confidently. They’re listening to me opine that Lupe Valdez, the former Dallas County Sheriff who stepped down to be a Democratic sacrificial lamb in a gubernatorial bid against Republican incumbent Greg Abbott, is “a terrible candidate.”
“I didn’t say that!” Shorey belts out, laughing. “I think she’s great. Let’s open up that sheriff’s office, please. I’ve got a few ideas [who could fill it]. Run, Lupe, run!”
It’s all feel-good vibes here at the GOP headquarters. But the mood shouldn’t be so upbeat, to be honest. The offices, on the northbound service road of North Central Expressway at Meadow Road, would need refurbishing to be considered utilitarian. The county GOP coffers are not 18 months removed from containing a laughable, paltry total of $180. And if you look at any of the red-blue U.S. maps that show recent election results, it’s easy to spot Dallas County, a square blue island in the North Texas red sea.
A looming deadline should also create a sense of dread. It’s seven days from the filing cutoff for November 2018 races. Shorey and company still must find credible candidates to run for Valdez’s vacated seat and for Geraldine “Tincy” Miller’s state board of education seat (she’s retiring); deal with the revelation that the party’s challenger to State Rep. Victoria Neave, whose district lies mostly in East Dallas and Garland, actually lives in Fort Worth; and, most crucially, hold the district attorney’s seat for incumbent Faith Johnson, the black female Republican unicorn to whom the local party is lashing its dreams of a more inclusive countywide GOP. All this in a county where most Democratic judges don’t even draw a Republican opponent and where Hillary Clinton stomped Donald Trump.
Those challenges don’t seem to dim Shorey’s spirit. Her intense but optimistic manner is reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon’s character in Election. “Now, anybody who looks at party history, here in Dallas, will know that—let’s just say we had a bit of a roller coaster in the last year,” she says. The snapshot: a small but maniacal band of local tea partiers decided to overthrow the “Pete Sessions Republicans” (read: traditional businessmen/sane people) from leadership and install one of their handpicked hard-liners, Mark Montgomery. That was in early summer 2016. In less than two months, Montgomery resigned and left the county party nearly broke. State Sen. Don Huffines’ brother, Phillip, stepped in and restored normalcy.
It’s hard to square Shorey’s repeated desire to make the Dallas County GOP more inclusive and friendly to both women and minorities with the larger backdrop of the Trump administration, Roy Moore, and so on.
Now, Shorey says, Phillip Huffines, who stepped down to run for Texas Senate, has left the county party stable enough that she can grow it to better compete with Dallas Dems. She says small but important indicators, like increasing the number of precinct chairs from about 180 to 250 or so in the past year, show the county GOP once again understands its mission. “Our core objective,” she says, “is to elect our candidates.”
Left unspoken: the Dallas County GOP’s mission is not the field of battle for the tea party vs. Bush-style Republican wars. The problem for Shorey is, even though that’s not the fight she wants to have, she’s got members of her party who will bring that war to her.
“Missy has her work cut out for her,” one Republican insider tells me. “She’s got great energy, and she’ll work hard. She has to, because she’s got to raise money in a tough environment. Everyone nationally hits up big Dallas donors, so it’s hard to get money out of them for local stuff. But more than that, and more than just getting Faith reelected, she’s got to protect the party against the crazies who’d rather see us burn than elect a sensible, business-friendly Republican. Because they haven’t gone away.”
Shorey says finding a way to bring the party together, to expand its base and be more inclusive to not just the moderate wing but also more women and minorities, is what inspired her to run for a position considered thankless. “It started with Faith Johnson. When I saw her announcement [appointed district attorney by Abbott], and saw one of the most diverse groups of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all together standing up for Faith, I asked myself, ‘How do I help Faith?’ Because this is where we need to go as a party.”
That doesn’t mean she’s blind to the party split. “A lot of people think, Oh, there’s so much division within the Republican party,” she says. “I’m not going to say there isn’t a healthy debate going on internally. But that’s natural. That’s a sign of a vibrant party.”
Shorey welcomes policy debates. Her rhetorical skills were honed young. Born in Mobile, Alabama, Shorey grew up a Coast Guard brat, spending a few years in towns along the Eastern Seaboard before her father, a rescue pilot, would be stationed somewhere new. “To say the man is my hero would be putting it very, very lightly,” she says. She would go into his office and find someone he’d just plucked from the ocean, shivering. Each night, she would watch the national newscast with her father before dinner and discuss politics.
Her peripatetic lifestyle shaped her personality. Shorey would arrive in a new city, friendless, knowing she would have to make an impact to be remembered after she left. She became an extrovert. At the University of Florida—“My family didn’t have the money for anything except a state school”—in freshman classes of 700-plus, she would sit in the front row and “ask so many questions you’d think I was in a seven-person class.” Why? “I’m paying for this education, and this is the only one I’m gonna get.”
She failed the LSAT three times before deciding politics might be her calling. After all, she’d interned on Capitol Hill in high school while living in D.C., and she even got to shake Ronald Reagan’s hand. So after college graduation, at 23, she ran a suicide campaign against a 36-year incumbent U.S. congressman. She raised $1.6 million in six weeks, and her candidate nearly won. “That was fun,” she told herself. Back to D.C. she went with 40 bucks in her pocket. She worked on staff at Capitol Hill, got her MBA, went to work for a big PR firm, and then in 2004 started her own PR company in the attic of a small family farm in upstate New York (she’d moved there to take care of ailing family members). In 2015, she moved here from Wichita Falls, where she’d lived with her Air Force pilot husband. (He is now a Southwest Airlines pilot.)
Since then she has run her business while working to increase her political profile. She was until recently the executive director of Maggie’s List, the federal PAC that tries to get conservative women elected. It’s in that role you may have seen her pre-election on PBS NewsHour, suggesting that many women would still vote for Donald Trump despite his “grab women” tape recording.
“I got a lot of death threats for that,” she says now. Her larger point was defensible. She said women were rightly disgusted by the recording and needed to address broader problems with a male-dominated political process, but that many conservative women would prioritize “pocketbook issues” and vote Republican. Many did. Still, it’s hard to square Shorey’s repeated desire to make the Dallas County GOP more inclusive and friendly to both women and minorities with the larger backdrop of the Trump administration, Roy Moore, and so on.
Even more immediate, she has to take on the other battles. As for raising money, she points to that Tampa race and her ability to keep a business afloat for 14 years while living in smaller cities as proof of her dollars-and-cents acumen. She hasn’t yet had to deal with the tea party folks sabotaging her party’s picks whom they deem too “Republican in Name Only” (RINO). This list includes just about every Dallas County Republican save Matt Rinaldi and anyone named Huffines.
Can she succeed? Relatively speaking, yes. For Republicans, it’s a good thing that the office no longer has to bend to the will of U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions. (Local GOP campaigners tell stories of only being allowed to block walk for statewide candidates on streets that also happened to be part of Sessions’ district.) And several Republicans told me that they don’t believe the office simply bends to the wishes of either Huffines. If she can truly execute a game plan that builds a bench of Republicans in Dallas County, and then a Dem name like Valdez at the top of the ticket doesn’t spark a down-ballot Democratic sweep, then maybe the local party can become relevant again.
That’s not the way I would bet my own money. Anti-Trump outrage does seem likely to affect down-ballot races, even in Texas. But I was surprised at how much I, a lifelong Democrat, found myself rooting for Shorey. She’s just likable. Having a winning personality is a large part of all of the fundraising, hand-holding, and ego stroking that the job entails.
“I think 2018 is going to be the battle of the decade,” she says. “And it’s going to be a blood bath. And we’ll be ready.” When she says this, Shorey is, of course, smiling.