For the first time in three decades, the 6th Congressional District in North Texas is an open seat. The race to replace longtime Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, who announced he wouldn’t seek another term amid a scandal last year, touched off one of the most crowded Republican primary races in Texas.
As 11 Republicans campaign for their party’s nomination in the district that stretches from Arlington through Ellis and Navarro counties, they are offering voters a pointedly conservative agenda. On issue after issue, the 10 men and one woman offer little daylight between them, with differences in emphasis and style more than policy goals.
At a forum in Ennis hosted by the CD6 Coalition for the Constitution, the candidates took turns taking the stage in groups of three to answer questions over three hours on a recent, rainy Saturday.
“The government should do three things well: Fight wars, build bridges, and leave me alone,” said Jake Ellzey, a former Navy pilot who’s raised more than $100,000, the second highest in the race. He's won the endorsements of both the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News.
On immigration, all nine candidates took hard-line stances that included calls to remove the constitutional guarantee of citizenship for everyone born in the U.S., require all businesses to use e-Verify to check the immigration status of all new employees, and crack down on so-called Dreamers who entered to the country illegally as children.
That’s a break with Barton, who advocates a solution for those who’ll lose protections when the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is terminated, including 120,000 in Texas.
“For them to say they’re in the shadows is a complete farce,” says Deborah Gagliardi, an architect from Arlington. “They’re in our face. They’re trying to make us fly their flag. They didn’t even try to get citizenship,” Gagliardi said of undocumented immigrants.
More than anything, the candidates all said they wanted to go to Washington with a mandate to cut, cancel, audit and repeal. The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, made the list. So did a bunch of federal agencies and departments, a high-speed rail project planned between Dallas and Houston, and all kinds of spending.
“We need to start doing spending cuts because the tax cut’s good, but unless we cut spending, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble really quickly,” said Shannon Dubberly, a former counter terrorism consultant who works in oil and gas.
Some of the candidates pledged to term-limit themselves, like Troy Ratterree, who implored the crowd not to vote for him if he ran for a third term.
Also running are retired aerospace executive Ken Cope, network analyst Shawn Dandridge, pastor and Bible college founder Kevin Harrison, physician and attorney Mark Mitchell, technology consultant Thomas Dillingham and Mel Hassell.
In terms of name recognition and endorsements, Ron Wright arguably leads the pack. He’s also raised the most among GOP contenders: more than $105,000 according to the latest filings. A former staffer to retiring Rep. Joe Barton, Wright was an Arlington City Council member before becoming the Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector.
“I put ‘In God We Trust’ on tax statements and envelopes in the tax office because I believe it’s the national motto and should go on all government documents. And I did it knowing I probably be sued,” he told the crowd.
Scrambling to get in the race
In November, Barton announced he would not seek an 18th term this year as planned. The surprise announcement came after a scandal involving a nude photo of himself and sexually suggestive messages. The unexpected retirement announcement came just days before the filing deadline and touched off a chaotic flurry of candidates throwing their hats into the ring.
Political scientist Rebecca Deen from the University of Texas at Arlington says that scramble was good for Wright, who quickly wrapped up endorsements from Republican leaders and organizations across the conservative spectrum.
“Any time you have a sudden departure, it benefits someone who is more established. So I think that is why you see a coalescence of people behind Mr. Wright. I think they wanted someone with more of a track record,” Deen said.
Although the race in this district is jam-packed with 11 candidates, it’s not even the most crowded race in Texas. That superlative belongs to the 18-person GOP primary to replace Rep. Lamar Smith, who held his Central Texas seat.
Six congressional seats in Texas with Republican incumbents are coming open as longtime officeholders step down. All told, 56 Republicans are running to fill those six seats. (Two seats held by Democrats are also open.)
The volume of candidates is a sign of pent-up energy in districts where incumbents served for decades, according to Deen. She thinks crowded primaries now could be also be a good sign for Republicans this fall, when they’re expected to face fired-up Democrats.
“If this energizes the Republican electorate such that they come out in the general election, then that’s another seat that doesn’t turn over and the Republicans in 2018 are going to need as many of those as they can get,” Deen said.
In the 6th District, the winner of the GOP primary will face one of five Democratic contenders this fall. That list includes Ruby Faye Woolridge, a retired teacher who ran for the seat in 2016, and Jana Lynne Sanchez, a public relations consultant who has raised the most money in either the Democratic or Republican primary so far. Levii Shocklee, John Duncan and Justin Snider round out the list.
The district sprawls across three counties from Arlington and Mansfield in Tarrant County across Ellis County and into Navarro County. Frank Kuchar, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Joe Barton twice before, says it’s a challenge to run a campaign in such a large district while working full time.
“It is a tremendous amount of stress,” he said.
On top of that, Kuchar says the crowded field means it’s a challenge to stand out as an individual.
“This is a great group of people” Bill Carson said of the contenders. He co-founded CD6 Coalition for the Constitution, an activist group focused on a strict reading of the constitution.
Carson says he hopes to see increased turnout, now that an incumbent isn’t taking up all of the oxygen in the race. Statewide, in 2014, only 10 percent of registered Texans voted in the Republican primary.
“Having all these people that are getting out and talking to people will generate the excitement, I hope,” Carson said.