Donald Trump’s support, rural roots fuel budding drama in Panhandle congressional runoff

From left, Josh Winegarner and former White House physician Ronny Jackson. (The Texas Tribune)

One of Texas’ most heated Republican primary runoffs features President Donald Trump, the retiring incumbent, the agriculture community and a slew of state and national elected officials — and not many are on the same page.

With still about a month to go, the scrambled alliances are fueling high political drama in the 13th Congressional District, easily outpacing other GOP runoffs that are still heating up after the coronavirus pandemic put them on hold. The incumbent, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, is retiring after two and a half decades in Congress, and after a massive primary, the two GOP candidates left for the seat are Ronny Jackson, the retired Navy rear admiral and former White House doctor, and Josh Winegarner, a veteran agriculture expert and lobbyist.

Recommended Videos

Armed with Trump’s endorsement, Jackson is leaning hard on his White House connections to argue he could continue the influence that Thornberry has accrued in Washington. Winegarner, who has Thornberry’s support, is pitching himself as far more in touch with the district than Jackson, who moved to Amarillo last year to run for the seat after 25 years in the military. Jackson grew up in Levelland, which is about a half hour west of Lubbock in the neighboring 19th District.

Trump looms large — and for good reason. The 13th District is rated as the most Republican congressional district in the country, giving Trump 80% of its vote in 2016. The president has a 93% approval rating among GOP primary voters in the district, according to Jackson campaign polling.

The fate of the seat is also of outsized importance to the state’s agriculture community, which is facing the prospect of significantly diminished clout on Capitol Hill with the impending retirement of Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee. That has created a less-than-straightforward choice for farmers and ranchers, a constituency that has been generally supportive of Trump.

“Farmers and ranchers have a great deal of respect for the president and his support for ag, but they understand his support of Dr. Jackson in this race is not based upon who’s the strongest person for agriculture in rural Texas,” said Billy Howe, associate director of government affairs for the Texas Farm Bureau, whose political arm has endorsed Winegarner. “It’s based upon the personal relationship with Dr. Jackson.”

Since the primary, Jackson has argued he would be the only freshman congressman who would be able to walk into the Oval Office unannounced and directly appeal to Trump for the district.

“Mr. Winegarner, I’ll tell you one problem you’ll have is no one’s gonna answer your phone call when you go up there,” Jackson said at a recent debate.

While he also touts strong support for the president, Winegarner has been more intent on portraying Jackson as a political opportunist who does not know the Panhandle.

“My opponent talks about how familiar he is with President Trump, but is he familiar with us?” Winegarner asked at the debate.

On TV, Winegarner is airing an ad telling 13th District voters, “We are Ronny’s back-up plan,” after his nomination to be secretary of veterans affairs imploded two years ago amid professional misconduct allegations. Jackson has countered with his own commercial that begins with him emphasizing his experience “growing up in the Panhandle.” He has also said Winegarner’s scrutiny of his absence from the district amounts to an attack on his military service.

What exactly constitutes the Panhandle has been subject to debate, and Winegarner laughs off Jackson’s argument he grew up there. The Texas State Historical Association defines the Panhandle as Texas’ “northernmost twenty-six counties,” which do not include Jackson’s hometown of Levelland. The association had published a map of the Panhandle that illustrated it as a much broader area containing Levelland. After The Texas Tribune inquired about the discrepancy, the association updated the map to include only the 26 counties.

Winegarner, currently the industry affairs director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, finished first in the 15-way March primary, getting 39% to 20% for Jackson. Jackson entered the race late — jumping in hours before the filing deadline in early December — and posted paltry fundraising in the opening stretch. But he eventually put together enough money to air a TV ad that was entirely made up of Trump’s past praise for him and pulled ahead of another candidate who had recently moved into the district, Chris Ekstrom, for the No. 2 spot.

Trump broke his public silence on the race four days before the primary, tweeting a plea for voters to send Jackson to the runoff. Jackson was already well-positioned to advance after early voting, results later showed.

Jackson’s campaign in the runoff has been much higher-profile — and combative. As Trump's former doctor, he became a Fox News regular in the weeks after the March primary as the novel coronavirus began to dominate headlines. After word got out that a super PAC backed by retiring U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, planned to spend for Winegarner in the runoff, Jackson moved aggressively to rally supporters against a perceived plot by “Never-Trump ‘Republicans.’” And when Trump revived unfounded conspiracy theories last month about his predecessor, Barack Obama, Jackson enthusiastically backed up Trump, prompting denunciations by some former Obama officials who said they remembered Jackson differently when he was Obama’s physician.

There has been a flurry of endorsements in the runoff illustrating some of the broader divides between the candidates. Jackson has picked up endorsements from statewide and national conservative groups, as well as stalwart Trump allies such as Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Winegarner has rolled out endorsements highlighting his support in the district and other parts of Texas where agriculture dominates — officials like former Texas GOP Chairman Tom Mechler, state Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock and U.S. Rep. Lance Gooden of Terrell.

To be sure, Jackson has also assembled support closer to home, announcing a “districtwide leadership team” last month with supporters across all 41 counties in the district. One of the more prominent names is former Amarillo Mayor Jerry Hodge, who initially donated to three candidates in the primary, including Jackson and Winegarner. Now he is an ardent Jackson booster, serving as president of a pro-Jackson super PAC and co-chairing a campaign task force on bringing pharmaceutical manufacturing back from China.

Hodge said he grew weary of Winegarner’s attacks on Jackson, which began in the primary.

“You don’t really get to pick where you live, and when he got out, he chose Amarillo … and so that’s a bad argument and that was one of the things that turned me off,” Hodge said. As for Winegarner’s advantage in agriculture, Hodge, a rancher, noted, “There’s more to the 13th Congressional District than just cows.”

Beside Trump, one of the more consequential endorsements for Jackson has been the Club for Growth, the national conservative group that endorsed Ekstrom in the primary. The group’s runoff backing has already translated into over a quarter-million dollars of spending in support of Jackson.

In the runoff, Trump has been more vocal about Jackson, reminding his Twitter followers twice in recent weeks that Jackson has the president’s “Complete and Total endorsement.” And when Trump visited Dallas last week, Jackson met him on the tarmac and got to walk down the steps of Air Force One behind him.

In between all the endorsements, though, the attacks have been flying. In addition to fighting over their Panhandle roots, Jackson and Winegarner have sparred over term limits, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association PAC’s donations to Democrats over the years and Jackson’s participation in the 2016 election.

Seeking to undercut Jackson’s presidential alliance, Winegarner has claimed Jackson did not even vote for Trump in 2016. Jackson has said he voted absentee like he regularly did in the military, saying he “requested a ballot, I got a ballot, I sent the ballot in.” However, neither the state nor his home county, Hockley County, has any record of him submitting an absentee ballot in the 2016 election.

Winegarner has also focused on the circumstances that led to the collapse of Jackson’s VA nomination in 2018. Jackson withdrew from consideration amid accusations he behaved improperly as the White House doctor, including mishandling prescription drugs. He denied the allegations and while campaigning has said he was unfairly targeted by Democrats due to his association with Trump. Winegarner’s campaign has sought to show the concerns also came from GOP corners, noting in a TV ad, for example, that Vice President Mike Pence’s physician was among those who raised concerns about Jackson’s conduct.

Jackson remains under investigation for the allegations by the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General.

Jackson has found fodder in Winegarner’s lobbying record, arguing it shows he has been at odds with the Trump administration. Jackson has pointed out that Winegarner was registered to lobby in 2017 on issues including supporting the “continuation of NAFTA'' and preventing the “Trump Administration from bringing back Country of Origin Labeling.” Five years ago, Congress repealed the required labeling for beef and pork under the threat of retaliatory tariffs from Canada and Mexico.

Winegarner said in a radio interview earlier this month that the attacks on his lobbying provide a “perfect example” of how Jackson does not understand issues important to the district. He said he supports voluntary country-of-origin labeling and was advocating against the potential return of mandatory labeling, noting that Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, has expressed opposition to it. As for NAFTA, he said he was lobbying to “continue the good things” the deal had done for the district and that it was before the Trump administration proposed updating NAFTA with the United States Mexico Canada Agreement, which the Texas Cattle Feeders Association supported.

Miller, the agriculture commissioner backing Jackson, called Winegarner an “anti-Trumper” for his lobbying on the issues. He specifically said Winegarner's opposition to mandatory country-of-origin labeling is “anti-consumer and anti-farmer.”

“If you have a choice and you’re a big meat company … you’re not gonna put it on there because it’d be harder to sell,” Miller said. “We’re gonna have to make ‘em do it.”

All signs point to the runoff growing even more contentious over the next four weeks. A pro-Jackson super PAC, the Miles of Greatness Fund, began TV advertising this week that calls Winegarner “un-American” for his lobbying. A pro-Winegarner group, Ag Together PAC, also went up on TV this week with a direct-to-camera spot featuring Thornberry talking about why he supports Winegarner.

Then there is also the possibility the ever-unpredictable Trump could wade further into the runoff.

Kevin Buse, a self-described “staunch Josh supporter,” acknowledged Trump’s backing could carry the day with some voters.

“But the reality is, as a Texas Panhandle resident, you know, I want Josh representing me and I know that he’ll work with the president,” said Buse, the general manager of Champion Feeders in Hereford. “Obviously they’re both Republicans and they’re gonna coexist just fine.”

Disclosure: The Texas Farm Bureau and the Texas State Historical Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Recommended Videos