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On Saturday afternoon, roughly 150 local GOP officials will get together and decide who will likely become Texas' newest member of Congress representing the 4th Congressional District.
In an atypical election, that group of county and precinct chairs will pick the GOP nominee to replace former U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Heath, on the November ballot, who will face off against Democratic nominee Russell Foster. But given the district's strong conservative DNA — President Donald Trump won by a 53-point margin in this district in 2016 — it's widely expected the Republican on the ballot will win the district.
It's been a crowded, under-the-radar race marked by sudden tragedy, intense behind-the-scenes jockeying and a high-profile intervention by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Cruz has endorsed state Sen. Pat Fallon of Prosper for the appointment and is expected to travel to Sulphur Springs, where the vote will take place, on Saturday to make a closing pitch.
The election was triggered in late May when the U.S. Senate confirmed Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence. Ratcliffe was first elected in 2014 to represent the staunchly conservative district, a largely rural swath of northeast Texas that spreads from the Dallas suburbs out to the Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana state borders.
The seat will remain vacant until the winner of the November election takes office in January because Gov. Greg Abbott declined to call a special election to fill the rest of Ratcliffe's term.
At least 18 candidates are running for the appointment, and anyone can get nominated from the floor Saturday. But some are clearly more serious than others — or at least better known — in a group that includes Fallon and Jason Ross, Ratcliffe's former district chief of staff.
Ross is running hard on picking up where Ratcliffe left off when Trump tapped him to become the nation's top spy earlier this year. While Ratcliffe cannot endorse Ross given his position in Washington, Ratcliffe's wife, Michele Ratcliffe, has backed Ross.
"I’m the only one that keeps us from having to start completely over on Jan. 3," Ross said at a forum over the weekend.
Ross has also leaned on his local roots in a field that includes more than a few outsiders, though there is no requirement that candidates live in the district to run for it. Ross ratcheted up that contrast in a message to supporters Friday that said he has "lived 10,000 days of my life in this district fighting for our conservative values."
"While candidates who have never lived a day of their life in this district tout endorsements from groups or people who have also never lived a day of their life in this district, OUR campaign is proud to continue to receive increasing support from INSIDE the Great 4th District of Texas," Ross wrote in the email. "Simply put, people from here want to be represented by a strong conservative who has been here — not someone who conveniently found their way here to try and take advantage of this unique process so they could 'get to' Congress."
Fallon, who lives just outside the congressional district, knows he's the target of such ire. In an interview Thursday night, he acknowledged he is "getting thrown in the proverbial wood-chipper" as the race closes but noted "nobody attacks the guy perceived to be in 17th place."
With Cruz's backing, Fallon is running as the most proven conservative in the field, saying he is the only candidate with a legislative record on issues closest to what awaits in Washington.
Fallon's state Senate district overlaps the northwest corner of the congressional district, and he said he lives a short distance outside of the congressional district, in Prosper. Earlier this summer, he bought property in Grayson County, which is fully inside the congressional district.
Fallon's political ambition is also being used against him by opponents. He has successfully run for and held three offices over 11 years, including his current job, which he started less than two years ago. And since he got to the Texas Senate, he has explored — and passed on — a primary challenge to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and has been speculated about as a potential candidate in other federal races.
As for the knock on his political drive, Fallon said he has "always finished every term I've ever had," and this would be the first exception to that.
"This is not an occupation for me," Fallon said. "This is an occu-passion. I'm a movement conservative, and I'm always searching for my best and highest use."
Fallon is not the only candidate claiming the mantle of conservative fighter.
There's also Aaron Harris, the anti-voter-fraud activist and chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Lance Gooden in the neighboring 5th District. Harris earned the endorsements this week of Grassroots America We the People and Young Conservatives of Texas, two hardline groups that are normally aligned with Cruz.
In its Harris endorsement, GAWTP singled out Fallon for skipping a forum over the weekend and said it was "unbecoming for one who is known for shopping around for higher office."
Despite their endorsements, Ross, Fallon and Harris are far from the only contenders making a serious run for the appointment Saturday. There is a batch of local elected officials, such as Rockwall City Councilman Trace Johannesen, Rockwall Mayor Jim Pruitt and Travis Ransom, the mayor of Atlanta — not Georgia — a city of less than 6,000 people near the Arkansas border.
Ransom argued in an interview that he is the only candidate with experience in the military, local elected office, the party, the privater sector and the Legislature. In addition to being mayor of Atlanta, Ransom is a command sergeant major in the Army and former longtime staffer to ex-state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.
"I think of all those five categories, I check the boxes, I've done all five of those things successfully," Ransom said before jokingly acknowledging the challenge of standing out: "It's a totally crowded race. There's way too many of us in there."
Another candidate with experience on Capitol Hill is Christopher Schell, a former longtime staffer to Ratcliffe's predecessor in the district, Ralph Hall, whom Ratcliffe unseated in the 2014 primary.
And there are at least two candidates who unsuccessfully ran for other U.S. House districts earlier this cycle, including Navy veterans TC Manning and Floyd McLendon. McLendon, a retired Navy SEAL, was the runner-up in the March primary for the Dallas-based 32nd District, a national GOP target.
One of the better-known candidates, state appeals court Justice David Bridges, died last month after he was hit by a suspected drunken driver on Interstate 30 in Royse City. Bridges' death shocked the increasingly close-knit field of candidates — and, in a reflection of the cold, hard reality of this kind of race, suddenly left his supporters up for grabs.
A party official who had been backing Bridges, Hunt County GOP Chairman David Hale, said Wednesday he was still considering his options.
In general, Hale said, the county and precinct chairs are looking for "somebody who's dependably conservative, somebody who's ready for the job ... and [has the] ability and capability for the job."
As for the candidates' connections to the district, Hale and others who will vote Saturday said it is certainly part of the discussion. But it is not the only part, they said, and it may be overshadowed by the desire for someone aligned with the district's stout conservative values.
"The qualities they're looking for is someone that thinks like Congressional District 4," said Stacy McMahan, an Upshur County precinct chair. She added that the race has come down to "pretty much two or three people" but declined to name them or share her choice.
The process by which county and precinct chairs replace a nominee for the general election is unusual but not unheard of, at least at the state and local levels. It is how Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, ascended to the Texas Senate in 2016, and later this month, it will be how the next Travis County judge is selected.
For Saturday's vote, the group of county and precinct chairs is known as the Congressional District Executive Committee. Their Sulphur Springs meeting is set to begin at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Hopkins County Regional Center. All nominated candidates will give speeches before the CDEC members start voting, and the winner must get a majority.
The CDEC election means some of the conventional measures of a campaign are not as relevant. Fundraising, for example, would appear to matter less because the electorate is just 150-some people instead of thousands of voters districtwide who would require costly TV ads and mailers to reach en masse.
In any case, Ross has been the top fundraiser, taking in $92,000 as of Saturday. A few candidates, including Fallon, have largely or exclusively self-funded their campaigns, with loans in the low to mid five figures.
In another sign of the race's funkiness: A majority of the declared candidates have not even registered with the Federal Election Commission, which is required when they raise or spend $5,000. There is otherwise no formal mechanism for becoming a candidate before being nominated Saturday; those running do not have to file with the state party like they would normally have to do for a primary in the district.
The unusual dynamic has put a premium on personal relationships in the district and candidate work ethic. With precinct chairs being bombarded for their support, one candidate, Johannesen, said he has worked hard to travel to potential backers, including one recently in a remote area who was impressed when he saw Johannesen's mud-covered truck make it up the unpaved road to his house in four-wheel drive.
"You probably have had your phones blowing up, and I’d rather not be one of those other guys just calling you and begging for a vote," Johannesen said he told the prospective supporter. "That’s just not my style, and it makes me uncomfortable, frankly speaking."
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated U.S. Rep. Lance Gooden represents the 4th Congressional District. Gooden represents the 5th Congressional District.