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Claims of carpetbagging fly in Texas congressional primaries

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There is a 15-way Republican primary in the Panhandle's 13th Congressional District, which includes the city of Claude. Axel Gerdau for The Texas Tribune

There are political outsiders, and then there are outsiders — literally.

Across Texas’ most competitive congressional primaries, leading candidates are weathering scrutiny of their ties to the districts they are running for, fueling a dominant theme ahead of the March 3 primary. The dynamic is playing out across the state, mostly in GOP primaries and particularly in more rural districts, where there is a premium on local connections.

“We’re not Dallas or Houston or San Antonio — we’ve got different issues, different concerns,” said Josh Winegarner, who is running for the Panhandle's 13th District and just received the backing of the retiring incumbent, Rep. Mac Thornberry, in the 15-way primary. “I don’t understand how anybody thinks they can represent an area they’ve never lived in, worked in or raised a family in."

There is, of course, no law that mandates candidates live in the districts they are running for, let alone hail from them. And this is far from the first election cycle in Texas — a state rife with political ambition and plenty of districts to choose from — to feature accusations of carpetbagging and district shopping.

But the complaints are especially pitched this cycle as competitors in crowded Republican fields jockey to fill open seats in mostly safe GOP territory and some retiring incumbents — alarmed by district outsiders — work to play kingmaker. On top of it all, the candidates coming under fire are hard to dismiss, registering among the most viable contenders in their primaries and well positioned to advance to runoffs.

Take, for example, Thornberry’s district, the most Republican congressional district in the country by some counts. Thornberry initially swore off involvement in the primary to succeed him, but as certain names started surfacing a few weeks after he announced his retirement, he issued a statement warning against “out-of-district candidates.” And on Monday, Thornberry announced he and his wife would vote for Winegarner, giving the candidate the closest thing to an endorsement.

Winegarner quickly turned around a TV ad on the news that boasts the Thornberrys are voting for him “because only one of our own can protect our home.” Even before that, Winegarner aired a TV spot that flashed an image of well-dressed people getting off a plane and told voters: “We have 15 candidates for Congress, many of them from out of district. A Dallas millionaire’s even trying to buy our seat.”

That person would be Chris Ekstrom. A prolific donor to hard-right candidates and causes — including more recent efforts to protect Confederate monuments in Texas and elsewhere — Ekstrom moved two hours from the Dallas area to Wichita Falls and announced his campaign in late October.

Within two weeks, he began airing TV ads, building valuable name ID in the district as the rest of the field was still forming ahead of the Dec. 9 filing deadline. By the end of that month, he had loaned himself a half a million dollars, according to his latest filing with the Federal Election Commission.

Ekstrom appears to be betting that voters care more about electing an uncompromising conservative than someone with deep district roots. He has vowed to join the House Freedom Caucus if elected and trumpeted endorsements from three of its members — including its chair — two of whom are from out of state. He has also been endorsed by the Club for Growth, the national anti-tax group that spends big in primaries.

At a forum Tuesday night, Ekstrom cut to the chase in his introductory remarks.

“My name is Chris Ekstrom, and I live in Wichita Falls,” he said. “I’m in this race because there was not another conservative in it, and I believe the most conservative district in the country ought to be represented by a true conservative.”

Winegarner scoffs at the implication.

“Everybody in this race is a conservative,” he said in an interview. “He’s trying to paint himself as something different from me, and that’s not it. I just happen to be a conservative — and also from the district.”

The primary also features Ronny Jackson, the former White House doctor and Trump’s ill-fated nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary in 2018. Jackson was born and raised in Levelland — a city about 30 miles west of Lubbock that’s in a neighboring congressional district — but has spent the past 25 years living throughout the country due to his service in the Navy. He retired from the Navy days before filing for Thornberry’s seat in December and moved to Amarillo.

“I could’ve run in other places, too,” Jackson said in his first interview after filing for the seat, which was Dec. 12 on Fox News. “Leaving the Navy, I could’ve moved back to anywhere in Texas that I wanted, but this is the region of Texas that I consider my home, and these are the people that I understand, the people that I know, and these are the people that I think I can effectively represent.”

Incumbent kingmakers

Thornberry is not the only outgoing incumbent who has designated a preferred successor amid concerns that his district could fall into the hands of an outsider. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, announced Saturday that he was endorsing Waco businesswoman Renee Swann in the 11-way primary to replace him, capping months of openly warning against out-of-district contenders.

Flores has focused much of his ire on former U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, who is running for Flores’ 17th District seat after losing reelection in 2018 in his Dallas-based previous district.

Sessions, who spent 22 years in Congress representing two districts centered more on North Texas, appears well aware of the vulnerability. He is campaigning on being born and raised in Waco, as well as the fact that he previously represented a chunk of the counties now in Flores’ district. His mailers, TV ads and radio spots all note he is a “Waco native.”

With a little more subtlety, Flores has expressed opposition to another candidate, George Hindman, an aerospace engineer who has pumped $400,000 of his own money into his campaign. Hindman says he has lived in and around the 17th District for the past 25 years but spent 11 years living "about 5 miles" outside the district and moved back in last fall. Hindman has unsuccessfully run for other Central Texas offices before, including challenging Flores in 2012.

There is a layer of irony in the race because Flores, a former Houston oil executive, faced his own carpetbagger attacks when he first ran in 2010 and unseated Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards. The head of the House Republicans’ campaign arm at the time was none other than Sessions.

“I find it very ironic [Flores is] all up in arms about somebody being from the district when he’s not from the district,” said Lance Phillips, chairman of the Limestone County GOP and a Sessions supporter who helped draft him. “I think [Flores] kind of wanted to anoint someone and be congressman emeritus.”

"This is not West Houston"

A third retiring incumbent, Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, has also endorsed a candidate to succeed him. However, in a twist of irony compared with the other primaries, that contender — Pierce Bush — is not from Olson’s 22nd District in the Houston suburbs. Bush moved out of the city to run for the seat, and so did another leading candidate, self-funder Kathaleen Wall, who mounted an unsuccessful campaign last cycle for the nearby 2nd District.

Bush has justified his decision to run for the 22nd District by noting how much of his work as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Lone Star has touched on the greater Houston area.

Another 22nd District contender, Greg Hill, a former Brazoria County court-at-law judge, has been perhaps the most aggressive in calling out Bush and Wall. He greeted Bush’s entrance into the primary with a sharply critical statement — “This is not West Houston,” it said — and has bluntly questioned Wall’s intentions at forums.

“Not to be disparaging, but if you’ve run for Congress and you’ve lost and you’re willing to abandon your community and go run somewhere else, you’re not going to be a congressman for those that you serve, you’re wanting to just serve yourself,” Hill said to applause at a forum last month while Wall sat listening steps away.

Wall, for her part, is campaigning on her ability to keep the nationally targeted district under GOP control in November, in part due to her massive resources. She has already self-funded her campaign to the tune of $1.6 million.

Some of the candidates have spoken more openly than others about having tenuous district ties. Floyd McLendon, one of five Republicans running to challenge Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, recalled at a meet-and-greet in December how he had initially planned to run for the seats of either Reps. John Carter of Round Rock or Roger Williams of Austin, thinking one would retire, but then was encouraged to run for Allred’s 32nd District because GOP contenders were desperately needed there.

McLendon, a former Navy SEAL, acknowledged people warned him he could get criticized as a carpetbagger, but he tied his decision to the lessons he learned in the military.

“In the absence of leadership, one will lead,” he said. “What you have is … a district that no one wants to step up to run for, that needs to be taken back by the Republican Party, and I’m saying I’m gonna fill that spot.”

McLendon added that he and his wife “moved twice in six weeks to be in the district so I could launch my campaign.”

McLendon’s closest competitor in the primary is Genevieve Collins, who is campaigning on being “100% Texan” and having strong ties to the district. Her campaign says she has lived in the district her entire life, except for when she went to college in Tennessee and for several years until November when she lived less than a mile outside the district.

Lack of voting history

Meanwhile, in the 11th District, where Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, is not seeking reelection, some candidates are having to defend their connections to the district through questions about their voting records — or lack thereof. They include the field’s top fundraiser — by a wide margin — August Pfluger. Since 2000, he had not been registered to vote in Texas — or voted — until last fall, according to a Texas Scorecard report and records from his campaign.

Pfluger, a former Air Force fighter pilot who grew up in the district, has attributed his lack of registration, at least in part, to a desire to abstain from politics while in the military. But some of his primary rivals do not buy it.

“I find it very difficult to say they’ll go fight for President Trump if they never voted for him,” said J.Ross Lacy, a former Midland City Council member also running in the primary.

(Trump endorsed Pfluger on Wednesday, a day after Lacy spoke with The Texas Tribune.)

The targets of such ire are hardly concealing their frustration with the nagging criticism at this point. Ekstrom has sent his driver’s license and license to carry to district media outlets to prove his Wichita Falls residency, calling questions about where he lives “the definition of fake news!” Last month, Hindman cut off a radio interviewer who posited he did not live in the district, and on Monday, he penned a Facebook post trying to put the issue to rest. “I’m going to address this once,” he wrote.

Most of the drama about district ties is flaring up in GOP congressional primaries. But there are some Democrats fighting among themselves about the issue, including in U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s hotly contested primary. The Laredo lawmaker is drawing attention to the fact that his challenger, Jessica Cisneros, moved back to the district several months ago. Cisneros was born and raised in Laredo but left to attend law school at the University of Texas at Austin and pursue related opportunities.

Other Democrats, meanwhile, are happily sitting back and watching Republicans bicker, drawing hope even in districts that are unlikely to flip.

They include David Jaramillo, a Democrat running for Flores' seat who issued a news release the day after the incumbent picked his successor. “With Republicans deeply divided,” the release said, “a Democrat from the community will be uniquely positioned to adopt this momentum and win this district as well.”

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