The Republican Party of Bexar County’s new chair campaigned on plans to support the politics of former President Donald Trump, build an army of poll watchers for the November election and recruit “true Republicans” as candidates. 

Now that Jeff McManus has the job, however, those close to him are working to soften his message as the party aims to pick up support from potential new voters unhappy with today’s Democratic party.

McManus, an outspoken 75-year-old insurance broker, last week unseated current chair John Austin, a real estate appraiser who said he sought to heal the party after the tumultuous run of Cynthia Brehm.

McManus finished first in the March primary, forcing Austin into a May runoff. He won with 54% of the vote, despite facing roughly $20,000 in attack ads paid for by U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-San Antonio), who backed Austin.

Gonzales’ office did not respond to an email requesting a comment on the race.

Local Republicans want the party to go in a much broader direction, said Mimi Planas, president of the Log Cabin Republicans of San Antonio, which represents “LGBT conservatives and straight allies.”

“Expanding our party is the most important thing that we need to do, and Jeff is the guy to do it,” Planas said.

More than a week after the runoff, a campaign website outlining McManus’s priorities — from keeping the party out of the hands of the business community to defining abortion as murder “regardless of excuse” — was still live.

Now that the race is over, however, McManus says he’s working to make inroads with all factions of the GOP, including meeting recently with the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile his allies are working to soften the language of his top priorities.

“Originally, we started with Trump, pro-Trump, and now we, in the last several months, transitioned that phrase more to ‘America First,’” said Laura Kirby, a Republican precinct chair who helped McManus’ campaign.

Kirby is among Republican activists in Bexar County who see a big opportunity for their party to pick up support from voters who she said are unhappy with national Democrats.

On abortion access, which many Republicans support in at least some circumstances, Kirby said, “some of the pro-life and the pro-family things” McManus campaigned on will not be a central part of his message going forward as party chair.

“We all discussed, amongst campaign and election-type, brainstorming meetings, that [abortion] is not something that we at a local level have influence over,” Kirby said of the decision.

McManus — whose campaign included handing out water bottles that said “thirsty for change” — said he is working hard to present himself as a chair who can help expand the party.

“I’m gonna do everything I can to move the party into the 21st century,” he said in an interview last week.

But McManus can hardly resist speaking his mind, and continues to talk passionately about his desire to restore a way of life he said he remembers as a young person.

“I can’t tell you how free I felt growing up. I mean, really free in the ’50s, ’60s and into the mid-’70s. It was incredible,” said McManus.

At a conservative gathering at 2M Smokehouse on San Antonio’s East Side Friday evening, McManus decried the “sugar daddy federal government” for programs that provide food and healthcare benefits to poor people, particularly women and children.

“We shouldn’t make it so easy for people to not learn how to cope with each other and stay married,” said McManus. “They don’t have to work it out because [women know], ‘I can throw him out of the house…’ just file for welfare and she’ll get it.”

McManus’ early efforts to connect with various wings of the Republican Party seem to have earned him some leniency from conservative activists hoping to capitalize on the midterm elections this fall.  

San Antonio Tea Party leader Jeanne Melendez implored attendees at Friday’s gathering to allow McManus to navigate his new role, while keeping their own efforts focused on the November election.

“When we find something wrong with Jeff, let’s go to Jeff, and say, ‘Jeff, I see this problem. How can I help you?’” said Melendez, who also urged the group to put aside their complaints about Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and support his reelection this fall.

One of Bexar County’s biggest prizes for Republicans is a seat on Commissioners Court, where McManus will have outsized influence over in the coming weeks.

Republican Trish DeBerry stepped down from her role as Precinct 3 commissioner last December to launch her campaign for county judge, leaving GOP precinct chairs to select her replacement on the November ballot. The precinct is represented in the meantime by Republican Marialyn Barnard, who is among a handful of candidates vying to become the party’s nominee.

McManus, whose campaign website lays out some specific requirements for what he thinks potential GOP candidates should support, said he’s still considering how the nomination process should take place in late June.

Though GOP county precinct chairs in Precinct 3 will ultimately vote to decide the nominee, McManus said he’s looking at ways to narrow the contenders down to a “core group of acceptable candidates.” One option to do so, he said, would be holding a “benchmark” vote where contenders who don’t receive enough support are eliminated.

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Andrea Drusch

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