Former U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions was once one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington. It was long a given in U.S. House GOP circles that the then-Dallas-based congressman would one day serve at the highest levels in the chamber, based in part on the unity and strength of the Texas congressional delegation.
But Sessions lost reelection in 2018. Since then, he has moved 100 miles south in hopes of a political comeback in a different district. But two things stand in his way: runoff rival Renee Swann and his former colleague, retiring U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, who represents the district and has thrown his full support behind Swann.
And to even further escalate the drama in what otherwise would have been a sleepy race for a largely uncompetitive Republican seat in the general election, Swann announced last week in the final stretch of the campaign that she and her husband tested positive for COVID-19, effectively sidelining her from any in-person campaigning. As of the weekend, she said on social media she remains asymptomatic.
Now, voters in the district have a choice ahead of them that has little to do with ideology, as both candidates mostly agree on conservative policy. The decision instead will be whether to back a seasoned campaigner and political insider in Sessions against a political neophyte with Swann.
During his 22 years in Congress in Dallas, Sessions was no mere rank-and-file Republican member. He unseated the Democratic leader of the delegation in former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost after the two incumbents were redistricted into a head-to-head competition; he was the leader of the House GOP return to power in 2010 as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee; he made a stalled attempt to serve as House majority leader in 2014; and he served in his final years as the House Rules Committee chair. In that role, Sessions was one of the last members to tweak bill language before it went to the House floor for a final vote on passage.
Sessions' ambition was well known around the Capitol. With a perception that the country's largest state Republican delegation was unified behind him, he was expected at some point to serve in the top tier of Republican leadership.
But in 2016, something strange happened.
Sessions easily won reelection in his unopposed race, but Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton organically and narrowly won his Dallas district. This seat would prove to be at the vanguard of a drift of suburbs shifting from Republican strongholds to Democratic opportunity areas. Sessions, who led that 2010 march to House GOP domination, suddenly found himself in deep political trouble.
Two years later, he lost to Democrat Colin Allred. The margin was not even close by battleground standards — Allred defeated Sessions by a 6.5-percentage-point margin.
During the 2019 recruitment season, Democrats and Republicans watched and waited to see if Sessions would launch a rematch. Instead, in October he stunned Texas Republicans by relocating to his boyhood home of Waco and launching a campaign for Flores' seat a few months after Flores announced his retirement.
In this new district, he aims to represent Waco and Bryan-College Station and their respective institutions of higher learning, Baylor University and Texas A&M University; the rural areas in between the two cites; and a sliver of the northern Austin suburbs.
Flores reacted with plain unhappiness, denouncing the move and stressing the need for local talent. Since Sessions' launch, he has remained adamantly opposed to the idea of Sessions as his successor. Flores recently sent a fundraising letter on Swann's behalf, but much of the text hammered Sessions, including the phrase "once a career politician, always a career politician."
"Renee's opponent in the Republican Runoff Election is Pete Sessions, a former Congressman for more than 20 years ... from DALLAS. He lost his DFW area district in 2018 because he had become detached from the folks there," he wrote.
"This lack of attention to his constituents shows us what we can expect if Pete Sessions is elected to represent the 17th district," Flores added.
In congressional-speak and within a delegation that has long prided itself on Republican unity, those are fighting words. Swann also chimed in during an interview with The Texas Tribune last week, in which she called it "disturbing" that an ousted member of Congress could pick up and move to run in a new district.
"That's absurd," said Sessions' consultant Matt Mackowiak, describing an on-the-ground recruitment effort from local Republican leaders. "His family has deep ties to Waco. He was born there, he went to school there, he was in Boy Scouts there."
Beyond interpersonal politics, news broke amid Sessions' launch that he was reportedly an unnamed congressman in an indictment against two Ukrainian associates of Rudy Guiliani — President Donald Trump's lawyer who has raised money for Sessions in the past. Around that time, campaign finance reports showed that Sessions spent campaign funds on criminal defense attorney fees — a point of criticism from the Swann campaign.
"From the beginning, Pete's fully cooperated, and there's been no further follow up," Mackowiak said.
More recently, another bomb dropped. The Associated Press reported that in his 2018 capacity as chair of the House Rules Committee, Sessions unsuccessfully sought to serve as a liaison between the socialist Venezuelan government and Exxon Mobil. That interaction involved a Florida member of the Sessions-led 2010 recruitment class that retook the U.S. House: David Rivera, a member who ran into ethical allegations during his short time in Congress. At the time, the Venezuelan government was reportedly paying Rivera $50 million.
"Pete was asked to perform a diplomatic mission on behalf of the State Department to try to reach an agreement where [Venezuelan ruler] Nicolás Maduro would leave office peacefully, and he was pleased to try and play a constructive role on behalf of the government at that time," Mackowiak said.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Swann has raised about $1 million, which includes about $700,000 in personal loans to the campaign. Swann's haul includes $10,000 in donations from Flores' outgoing campaign and aligned leadership political action committee. More recently, Flores recorded a robocall on her behalf.
Sessions, by comparison, has raised just under $834,000, which includes a $140,000 in personal loans.
Those fundraising sums are relatively normal for an uncompetitive U.S. House seat. But it is striking when compared with the nearly $300 million Sessions oversaw in the 2010 and 2012 cycles as the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman.
Sessions' pitch to voters is unique in an anti-establishment moment: The district's voters would have on their side a congressman who will have decades of seniority built in upon his return to Congress, and he would earn prime committee assignments.
A leadership source who was not authorized to discuss the race on the record confirmed to the Tribune that Sessions' previous tenure would be reinstated if he returns to Congress. That said, committee assignments are not settled until after swearing-in ceremonies in January, and those decisions are reliant on who is leading the Republican conference and how many Republicans are elected in the fall.
A retired chief operations officer of a Waco ophthalmology clinic, Swann is so new to politics that she said she and her husband searched Google to figure out how to file to run for Congress. She argued that Sessions ought to be running to retake his old seat back from Allred and the Democrats. Now that she is in the runoff, she is running hard against Sessions' record.
"Pete talks a lot about his experience," Swann said. "Frankly, I don't want that kind of experience at all."
Mackowiak pushed back against the anti-establishment tone.
"This is a central distinction between her and us and a central reason to why Pete is going to win," he said. "There's not much ideological difference between the two candidates. The choice boils down to someone with experience or someone who's inexperienced."
What is clear is that the cheap ad markets of Waco and Bryan-College Station have allowed for robust television campaigns from both sides.
On this front, Sessions is hammering Swann on television and alleging she voted for Hillary Clinton. It's a charge that originates from a Rush Limbaugh-led 2008 effort to encourage Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary that year with the logic that Clinton was a weaker nominee for the general election campaign. It is also a criticism that has surfaced elsewhere in Texas races this year. Swann has not said whom she voted for in that contest.
Swann said she overheard Limbaugh's plan as construction workers in her home listened to his radio program, and she became intrigued.
"I have admitted publicly that I participated in Operation Chaos in 2008. I’m sorry that that’s something political world would not have done [because] they were career politicians," Swann said.
She expressed frustration that Sessions is making hay over the vote, leaving out the election year and circumstances and leaving voters with the assumption that Swann voted for Clinton over Trump in 2016.
"I voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016," she added. "I'm going do it again."
As it stands, the race is a head-scratcher for political insiders.
Republican operatives briefed on internal polling throughout the duration of the race say they are stunned with how well-known Sessions is in a new district. The assumption is this is spillover from his past campaign's television and radio advertising in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to the north.
That boost was strong enough to propel Sessions into first place during the March 3 primary. He secured 32% of the vote, with Swann narrowly capturing the runner-up slot in the 12-candidate field with 19%.
Swann's lead campaign consultant is a fixture in Texas federal races, Chris Homan. He is the former consultant to Flores, and he worked in a similar role for another Texas Republican: Pete Sessions. Homan came to the race early on to help the outgoing congressman with Republican recruitment, long before Sessions entered the fray.
On the Sessions side, his lead political consultant, Mackowiak — like Homan — was a member of the team that helped carry Flores to victory in 2010.
The greatest unknown in the contest is whether an outside group might intervene on behalf of one candidate or the other with a last-minute television blitz in the cheap Waco and Bryan-College Station media markets. But time is running out: There are only days left to book television advertising.
Then there is the COVID-19 pandemic. The March primary took place just before the gravity and scale of the outbreak became clear — when voters went to the polls in a more normal-seeming world. Last week, the pandemic was a source of much surprise in New York's recent congressional primaries, and it remains to be determined how Texans go about voting and who shows up to the polls.
And beyond upending the normal campaign practices like door-knocking, the virus infiltrated Swann's campaign in a most existential way: She and her husband have the virus.
"This campaign continues to get more interesting!" she wrote on Facebook last week. "Russell and I just found out that we have tested positive for COVID. We are both asymptomatic, but we are going to be entering quarantine for the next 10 days."
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Baylor University and Texas A&M University 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.