The Texas Republican Party has instructed GOP candidates to decline invitations to primary candidate forums that involve Democrats, according to an internal memo obtained Tuesday by the American-Statesman.


The advisory comes as Republicans are girding for possible close contests come November in several congressional and state House districts that have been in Republican hands for years, amid rapid demographic changes and shifting political terrain in Texas suburbs.


"Selected left-leaning groups are organizing events around the state and inviting Republican candidates to participate," according to the memo, authored by party Chairman James Dickey and sent to Republican candidates, elected officials, and party leadership. "The Republican Party of Texas strongly advises against any participation during the Primary in any events, including forums or debates, that involves candidates from other parties."


The memo, dated Jan. 21, says the primary election "is the time for Republican voters in Texas to decide between the filed Republican candidates for their nominee for the General Election. The General Election will be the opportunity for Republican nominees to face off against those from other parties."


It concludes: "If you have been offered an invite to an event of this type, please decline, and also send us a copy or the details of the invitation so we can stay abreast of developments."


The memo came up in a candidate meet-and-greet that the Waco chapter of the League of Women Voters hosted Monday.


Three out of 11 Republicans running for the 17th Congressional District, which includes Waco, appeared at the event. Kristen Alamo Rowin, one of the candidates, said a GOP memo had discouraged candidates from appearing at bipartisan events.


"I’m going to be a voice for all our constituents," Rowin told the Statesman on Tuesday. "No one is going to control what I say or what I do."


Rowin, a real estate broker who lives in the Waco area, called her herself an "anti-establishment candidate, a constitutional conservative, and a Christian first and foremost."


Dickey told the Statesman he sent the memo because he heard about candidate forums sponsored by Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonpartisan public education advocacy organization, which he described as one of several organizations "who do not have the interest of Republican primary voters at heart."


"We started to hear that Republican candidate campaigns were getting pressure to distract their attention from their campaigns with six weeks left in the primary," he said.


Such forums are "illogical and unproductive," he said.


"It’s incredibly distracting to candidates, who need to earn their primary nomination, to expend energy against several people who are guaranteed to be an opposing party’s nominee, and it’s entirely unhelpful for primary voters," he said.


Dickey called Raise Your Hand a MoveOn-type organization — a liberal advocacy group — and that the forums amounted to a "new strategy" of politics.


Officials at Raise Your Hand Texas, which is funded by supermarket magnate Charles Butt, said the organization has nothing to do with MoveOn.


This year is the first year that Raise Your Hand Texas has hosted candidate forums, partnering with chambers of commerce, PTAs and League of Women Voters chapters to sponsor the events, which bar candidates from engaging with one another.


Raise Your Hand Texas has so far hosted 22 candidate forums that are "nonpartisan and entirely focused on public education," according to Libby Cohen, director of advocacy and outreach for Raise Your Hand Texas, covering such issues as teacher recruitment and retention, vouchers, school taxes and financing.


The forums, which are exclusively for state legislative races, "are designed to help candidates, irrespective of party, share their vision for public education with voters," Cohen said. "We are heartened that more than a dozen of these events have featured both Republican and Democrat candidates so far, and we have heard overwhelmingly positive feedback from those who have participated."


Through Feb. 10, 26 Republicans and 36 Democrats participated in the forums. About 20 more forums are planned before the March 3 primary.


At a Raise Your Hand Texas forum this month for Texas House District 128, just east of Houston, two Democratic candidates and one Republican showed up — but not incumbent Republican Briscoe Cain, who declined to appear because of the party memo, according to a report in the Baytown Sun.


"I don’t take direction from the Republican Party," Bob Hoskins, a Republican who participated in the event, told the Baytown newspaper. "I am affiliated with the Republican Party — I think it’s the right thing to do for America and for Texas, but I don’t take directions from them."


"On top of that, when you’re talking about public education or schools educating our young people, it’s too important to skip over and pass by," he told the newspaper. "I think you have to participate."


At least two Republican candidates in House District 47, in western Travis County, showed up to a Raise Your Hand Texas forum in Lakeway in late January, alongside incumbent state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin.


"Any time an officeholder or candidate can get in front of voters we should," Jenny Roan Forgey, who is running for the GOP nomination for the seat, told the Statesman.


The League of Women Voters event Monday in Waco was not held in partnership with Raise Your Hand Texas.


Ivy Hamerly, voter services chairwoman for the League of Women Voters in Waco, said her group held a meet-and-greet for primary candidates in 2018 as well.


She said each candidate gets one minute to lay out his or her priorities. Then voters circulate around a room as candidates sit or stand by their own tables.


"Our mission is to inform voters," Hamerly said.


Asked about the Republican Party’s suggestion that groups ought to hold separate primary forums, she pointed out that Texas has an open primary — voters do not register as Democrats or Republicans and can cast votes in either primary.


"Voters need to know information from all parties, really," she said. "Hearing from candidates helps voters decide which party’s primary they want to vote in."


Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman said the Democratic Party has not issued any such advisories to its primary candidates.


The memo "shows you that (Republicans) are afraid to talk about the issues to the people of Texas," he said.


Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect how many Democrats and Republicans have attended Raise Your Hand Texas events. It also has been updated to correct that state GOP Chairman James Dickey referred to Raise Your Hand Texas as a MoveOn-type organization, not a MoveOn organization.