Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
LUFKIN — For 18 years, East Texans have been represented in Congress by a prominent Republican known more for propagating conspiracy theories than for passing laws. But the region’s new representative, Congressman-elect Nathaniel Moran, plans to strike a different tone in Washington, D.C.
The retired Smith County judge, also a Republican, is among seven newly elected members of Congress from Texas who are expected to be sworn in today, joining 31 other Texans in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Moran will represent a 10,000 mile swath of Deep East Texas that encompasses all or part of 17 counties and serves more than 700,000 people who have historically favored Republicans.
Among Moran’s top priorities: liquidate the Department of Education, enact sunset legislation in order to shrink the federal government and secure the U.S.-Mexico border. The list goes on with traditional conservative policy items like addressing election security and inflation, but Moran intends to use the first few months in office to learn the ropes of passing national legislation.
“It takes time to get stuff done,” Moran said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “Federal government is not a speedboat that could turn around overnight. It’s more like a barge, and it takes time to shift the direction.”
Moran’s predecessor, Louie Gohmert, rose to prominence as a bombastic congressman prone to propagating baseless conspiracy theories, fomenting fear and taking on party leaders with hourlong diatribes on the House floor. But bills on which Gohmert was the lead sponsor passed in the House only six times, and just one of those was signed into law while Gohmert was in office. Only 10 of the 118 current House members who started before 2010 have passed fewer bills in the House than Gohmert, according to a Texas Tribune analysis.
Gohmert decided to run for Texas attorney general this year rather than for reelection to Congress. He came in last place in the Republican primary and is retiring from Congress in January.
Moran’s approach to Congress will likely be less showmanship and more pragmatic than Gohmert. Among constituents, Moran is considered a level-headed and conscientious leader who can work across the aisle, something he managed to do with Democratic commissioners in Smith County.
Critics worry Moran will embrace the same radically conservative agenda as his predecessor. Moran campaigned on traditional conservative values, touting himself as an anti-abortion, pro law-enforcement and pro-firearm Republican. As county judge, Moran defended the state’s 2021 abortion law that created a near-total ban on abortions after about six weeks into a pregnancy, increased funding for law enforcement and maintained relatively low property tax rates. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Moran ordered residents to stay home in the early months but then pushed for businesses to stay open while taking “appropriate precautions” in order to limit the economic impacts.
“We hold firmly to the same Christian evangelical conservative principles. There’s no question about that,” Moran said, comparing himself to Gohmert. “But we have different personalities and modus operandi.”
Moran was born in Arizona but grew up in a small town in Smith County, where his parents moved to develop a Bible college with other evangelicals. Moran says his decision to enter public service stems from the Christian values his parents instilled in him from a young age. On the campaign trail, he frequently shared a childhood anecdote about casting a mock ballot for President Ronald Reagan while in the fourth grade in 1984, a gesture he says symbolizes his long-standing commitment to conservative values.
Moran attended Texas Tech University for both college and law school and eventually made his way back to Smith County, where he ran for Tyler City Council and raised four kids with his wife, Kyna. Moran’s colleagues know him as a family man — soon after he was elected to his third term in the City Council, Moran relocated his family to Houston so that his son, who was born deaf, could attend a school for the hard of hearing.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” said David Stein, chair of the Smith County Republican Party. “He was willing to give up his career to help his son get the care he needed.”
Moran returned to Smith County three years later and in 2018 was elected county judge, a position he held until he won the congressional seat this year, taking 78% of the vote against his opponent, Democrat Jrmar Jefferson.
Under his leadership, Smith County managed to keep its tax rate low while still investing in capital improvement projects. Voters approved two successive bonds totaling $84.5 million for road and bridge improvements, and in November, they approved a $179 million bond to construct a new county courthouse.
“The courthouse was really an eyesore, and Moran built a consensus through the community — he’s able to get things accomplished,” Stein said. “The county has been running better than it ever has before.”
JoAnn Hampton, a Democrat who served on commissioners court under Moran, said Moran knows how to effectively communicate and work with people with opposing views. Even when she disagreed with Moran on controversial issues such as abortion, he was a good listener, a skill she believes Gohmert lacks.
“It’s going to be night and day,” Hampton said. “Gohmert was worried about what was happening in Washington and was not doing what his constituents wanted him to do. I don’t see that happening with Moran.”
But other county Democrats worry that Moran will align himself with far-right political leaders. Moran was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, and while he hasn’t gone so far to call the 2020 election “stolen,” he has said he believes there was significant fraud, a notion numerous audits in several states — including Texas — have proven false.
Michael Tolbert, former chair of the county’s Democratic party, recalled when Moran voted against a resolution to designate a certain day “NAACP Tyler-Smith County Day,” a largely symbolic gesture to support the civil rights organization. At the time, Moran said the NAACP’s “political stance” on certain issues, like removing Confederate monuments, made it impossible to support the resolution. Tolbert saw the move as malicious.
Tolbert also criticized Moran’s decision to support a resolution to make Smith County a “Second Amendment sanctuary city” and he worries that unlike Gohmert, Moran will be successful at passing far-right legislation while in office.
“He might not be as overtly malicious as Gohmert, but in practice he’ll be more dangerous,” Tolbert said. “Because he’s a more refined package.”
Much of what Moran accomplishes will be determined by which committees he’s assigned. He said he ultimately hopes to be on the Ways and Means Committee, the chief tax-writing committee and one of the most powerful. Short term, he’d like to serve on the Judiciary Committee or Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Disclosure: Texas Tech University has been a financial supporter 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.