In Unusual Closed-Door Election, 150 Texas GOP Officials Will Choose Likely Member of Congress
WASHINGTON — About 150 local Republican officials in Northeast Texas will gather Saturday to select the likely replacement in Congress for Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe in an election closed to the public.
The voters, made up of GOP county and precinct chairs who live in Texas’ 4th Congressional District, will have a lot of choices. More than 20 candidates have announced their intention to run for the seat. The district is one of the most Republican in Texas, so the candidate chosen to face a Democratic opponent in November likely will be the next Congress member.
“We’re hoping that whoever it is will have about the same values as John Ratcliffe had,” said Donnie Wisenbaker, chair of the Hopkins County Republican Party who will chair Saturday’s election. “He was very conservative and for small government. We just want a good conservative with the conservative values that we hold pretty dearly.”
Candidates are vying to represent a vast expanse of the Northeast corner of Texas, from West of Texarkana to the eastern edge of Dallas’ suburbs. Population centers are located along Interstate 30, which cuts diagonally through the district. The surrounding areas are rural, leaving candidates to sell themselves as the person best suited to represent suburbanites, residents of the many small towns in the district and those who live in the countryside.
The broad field of candidates has several household names like Ratcliffe’s former district chief of staff Jason Ross and local leaders like Atlanta Mayor Travis Ransom and Rockwall city councilman Trace Johannesen. Outsiders are also making strong pushes for the seat, including state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, and Floyd McLendon, a former Navy SEAL who lost a March primary in Texas’ 32nd Congressional District in Dallas. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has endorsed Fallon.
“I feel like I have a great relationship with all the other candidates,” said Ransom, a 42-year-old who sells insurance for Offenhauser-Atlanta. “I know that deep down, every one of the other candidates loves this country and wants what’s best for our nation.”
But the unique group of voters in the race has made for a Congressional election with limited online campaign presences and few public events as the candidates vie for only a few votes.
Ross had only spent $19,000 of his campaign funds as of July 19, according to Federal Election Commission data. Johannesen had spent just under $9,000, and Fallon, who enjoys better name recognition than most candidates, hadn’t spent any campaign funds on the race.
Ratcliffe’s seat would normally be filled by a special election, but with the November election so close to Ratcliffe’s decision in May to join the Trump administration and forfeit his seat and candidacy, there wouldn’t be time to hold such an election and subsequent runoff election. Under Texas law, the chairman of the Texas GOP can convene a “Congressional District Executive Committee” of the district’s precinct and county chairs to elect a replacement.
Former Texas Republican Party Chairman James Dickey said that despite the rarity of such elections, constituents should have the same confidence in the process that they would have for any normal election that the public participates in.
“This time, instead, it happens with a different subset of voters,” he said in a statement prior to being unseated last month by former Congressman Allen West. “But every voter in this election, just like every voter in the Texas House who votes for the Speaker of the Texas house, has already been elected to their position. The voters in this election were elected by the public and are now going to get to cast their vote to elect our nominee to represent our Party on the ballot in November.”
The election only determines who will be on the Republican on the ballot in November to face Democrat Russell Foster, who did not respond to requests to comment for this article, and the seat will remain vacant until the new session of Congress begins in January.
“In November as always, the general election voters get to decide if the voters who elected the Party’s nominee have chosen wisely,” Dickey said.
But in a district where Ratcliffe won more than three-quarters of the vote in 2018 and nearly 90% of the vote in 2016, the committee will essentially choose the district’s next congressman.
This type of election isn’t uncommon in Texas, being employed this month to replace the Democratic candidate on the ballot for Travis County judge, but there are no recent examples of a federal lawmaker essentially being elected in this fashion.
“This is a district that is extremely pro Republican. They could probably put any particular cicada on the ballot and they would probably win,” said Walter Casey, associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.
Local Democrats are already concerned about who will emerge victorious from the meeting.
“It’s an insider’s race, and the most extreme elements of the Republican Party are going to pick an extreme candidate to replace one of Trump’s favorites,” said Glenn Melancon, chair of the Grayson County Democratic Party.
Melancon likened the election to Republican gerrymandering, or the practice of drawing Congressional districts in a way that gives the party in power more favorable elections by splitting up areas where their political opponents enjoy stronger support.
“The Republicans have been gerrymandering the state to pick Congressional candidates for a long time,” he said. “They create uncompetitive districts so that they can send the most extreme members of the Republican party to the United States Congress. What they’re doing now is no different than what they’ve been doing for the last 20 years.”
On Saturday, members of the committee will meet at the Hopkins County Regional Center in Sulphur Springs to vote in person despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic has limited opportunities for candidates to meet with the voters.
Then weeks before Election Day, one of the race’s leading candidates died.
Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals Justice David Bridges was driving on Interstate 30 east of Dallas on July 25 when a woman driving the wrong way crashed into his car. Royse City police charged her with intoxication manslaughter. Bridges died at the scene.
Hunt County Republican Party Chairman David Hale had endorsed Bridges, a friend. He’s now having to weigh a fallback choice.
Other Republicans who are in the race include Rockwall Mayor Jim Pruitt, Rockwall attorney Casey Campbell, Navy veteran T.C. Manning of Sherman, and Bowie County resident Bob Worthen.
For Saturday’s election, candidates are able to purchase booths at the center where they can make final appeals to the voters. One week prior to the meeting, 18 candidates had purchased booths, Wisenbaker said.
How the election will be conducted is uncertain until the rules committee meets and decides the best method for selecting the candidate. Wisenbaker said candidates at the venue will need to be nominated by at least one voter to be considered.
The low barrier for entry and lack of a filing deadline has created a huge, uncertain field of candidates that won’t be finalized until they appear for the meeting and are nominated by one of the chairs.
The race is unlike any Johannesen, 42, has ever participated in. Many of his best opportunities to campaign come in the form of brief pitches he’s able to give to small gatherings of voters where he emphasizes his close ties to the district and conservative values, but his contact with non-voting constituents has been limited.
“In a perfect world, I would run this like a regular campaign, and I would talk to everyone to grow the groundswell of chatter amongst the entire district so the precinct chairs aren’t just hearing from us,” Johannesen said.
Ross also is banking on his profile among voters and the general public to carry him to a victory on Saturday.
Ross is counting on his close ties to Ratcliffe to sway voters who approved of the former congressman’s work. He said he has Ratcliffe’s “full support” in the election, although Ratcliffe can not expressly endorse a candidate in the race as a member of the Executive Branch.
But standing out in such a large field of candidates with similar political views becomes a test of more than just a candidate’s support for conservative priorities.
Johannesen, Ransom, Manning and McLendon are part of a contingent of candidates with military experience that they have emphasized in their campaigns. Ross, Fallon and Campbell have emphasized their experience in politics and connections to other high-profile conservatives in Texas and around the country.
No matter who the committee elects, Ransom said he believes it won’t make much of a difference one way or the other on Capitol Hill when the district’s new congressman is sworn in next January.
“There’s a prevailing thought that all of us are going to vote very conservatively, so what differentiates you from the other candidates?” he said. “And I think geography matters, leadership matters and experience matters.”
©2020 The Dallas Morning News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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