In 1984, the first time Joe Barton was on the ballot for Congress, “Dallas” was the No. 1 television show in America, Democrats ran Texas and the Southwest Conference was still in existence.
The long-dominant Barton’s startling retirement from Texas’ 6th Congressional District last year, coupled with a turbulent national political environment, has made the open-seat race to replace him uncharted territory for candidates from both parties. How do you win a congressional race to replace the dean of the Texas delegation?
Barton left office in December amid unsavory headlines about his personal life. That late announcement created a scramble for his seat, and an abbreviated primary campaign ended on March 6 with four candidates advancing to the May 22 runoff: Republicans Jake Ellzey and Ron Wright, and Democrats Jana Lynn Sanchez and Ruby Faye Woolridge.
The 6th District encompasses much of Arlington and parts of Fort Worth and its southern suburbs, sweeping southeast to include rural communities around Waxahachie, Midlothian and Corsicana.
This territory is traditionally safe for Republicans, and most bets are that it stays in the GOP column in 2018. But with the president’s unpopularity already playing into the midterm elections, there is some speculation the seat could become competitive in the fall.
The frontrunner is Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright, a longtime Republican fixture in local politics.
He previously served on the Arlington City Council and was a top staffer for Barton.
Not long ago, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist dubbed him Barton's "successor-in-waiting." In a recent Texas Tribune interview, Wright pitched himself as a "known commodity” and argued that he is the lone candidate who can "hit the ground running in Washington.”
His consultant team includes several members of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's political inner circle, and he has the support of the state's junior senator himself. He also has the backing of state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group.
Wright’s local ties nearly won him the GOP nomination outright on March 6, with 45 percent of the vote, doubling Ellzey's 22-point second-place finish.
But Wright’s fundraising — he raised about $160,000 through April 1 of this year — has lagged behind his opponent’s. Ellzey, a retired naval combat pilot, posted nearly $200,000 in contributions in the same time period and has received a key endorsement of his own, from former Texas governor and current U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Political observers say Ellzey has some of Perry’s interpersonal charm and is running hard on his biography; Ellzey’s campaign literature, advertising and website feature shots of him in a flight suit, and he says his military career makes him uniquely fit to represent the district. But he lacks Wright's name identification.
Ellzey's political strategy has been to hold onto his cash until the end of the runoff campaign — then unleash it on direct mail and cable TV advertising. "We've vastly out-raised Mr. Wright, and we've had the ability to reach out to the voters in numerous ways," Ellzey said in an interview.
The runoff hasn’t gotten much attention. That’s in part because Barton is one of eight Texans leaving the U.S. House this term, and the vacancies created a flood of open-seat races across the state. But it’s also because so much political energy — and money — is being reserved for the fall, where Republicans anticipate a tough fight to save their majority.
"We just want to wake people up [to know] that there's a race going on," Ellzey said.
The Democratic runoff is even quieter.
Woolridge, an educator and minister, eked out a first-place primary finish on March 6 by 15 votes.
The second-place finisher, Sanchez, was far better funded than Woolridge; in fact, Sanchez, a public relations consultant and former journalist, had raised more money than anyone else in the race as of April 1.
How did Woolridge prevail in that round?
"Because money doesn't vote. People do,” she said, stressing her ties to the community. She also has the endorsements of the largest two regional papers, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News and a number of high-profile Congressional Black Caucus members, including Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.
Sanchez is one of a several Democratic Texas congressional candidates running highly professional campaigns in deeply Republican territory. Her lead consultant is Bill Burton, a former spokesman for President Barack Obama and one of the key staffers involved in the Democrats' 2006 takeover of the U.S. House.
"They've never had a field operation like this," Sanchez said of past Democratic campaigns in the district. "I've been told at least a thousand times, ‘You are the first candidate who's ever been to my door.'”
It’s unclear how real the Democrats’ shot is.
Barton coasted to re-election here cycle after cycle, but this will be an open-seat race with a Republican nominee who does not have the brand and benefits of incumbency.
And while Donald Trump carried this district by a healthy 12 points in 2016, that margin was significantly smaller than Mitt Romney's 17-point win there in 2012.
Meanwhile, the 6th Congressional District is highly suburban — the demographic that national GOP strategists think is most unpredictable in the fall.
"After the runoff is over, our campaign has no plans to slow down," said Tyler Norris, a Wright consultant, adding that he’s “taking nothing for granted.”
“We're going to continue to build the strong grassroots ground game and have the resources to get our conservative message out.”