Topics of the debate ranged from “red flag” laws, to the national debt, to agriculture subsidies.
The 11th Congressional District
When the district was first created after 1880, it covered nearly the entirety of West Texas.
In the 1890s, it moved to South Texas, and after the 1900 census, it moved again to the Waco area where it existed for the next century.
Beginning in the 2004 election when Rep. Mike Conaway was first elected, the district was moved once again back into the West Texas area
After the 2010 census, Burnet and Lampasas counties were cut out along with some other counties in the Southwest portion of the district. Hood, Palo Pinto, Eastland, Callahan, and parts of Erath and Stephens counties were added instead.
The district is one of the most conservative in the state and the nation. Much like the rest of rural Texas, Republican presidential candidates have carried every county in the district for the last twenty years.
Given the political makeup of the district, the forum provided no shortage of conservative talking points from all of the candidates.
Ten Republicans have filed for the March 3 race and all were at the forum on Tuesday:
- Gene Barber, a veteran.
- Brandon Batch, a former congressional staffer for Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX-10)
- Jamie Berryhill, a businessman and the founder of Mission Messiah, a Christian ministry.
- J.D. Faircloth, the former mayor of Midland and a certified public accountant.
- Casey Gray, a U.S. Navy veteran who also served with the CIA and FBI.
- J.Ross Lacy, an oilfield businessman and former Midland city councilman.
- Ned Luscombe, a registered nurse for over 45 years and the owner of Reliable Nursing Services, Inc.
- August Pfluger, an Air Force veteran and former staff member in the National Security Council.
- Robert Tucker, a veteran and retired pastor.
- Wesley Virdell, an Air Force veteran and small business owner.
Cynthia Breyman had also filed to be on the ballot, but withdrew from the race in December.
The forum was hosted by the Hood County Republican Club and moderated by the esteemed founder and CEO of The Texan, Konni Burton (i.e. my boss’s boss).
When giving their introductory comments, most candidates said that the reason they were running was to support President Trump, fight socialism, or take a stand for traditional values.
Faircloth said that the primary reason he was running was his concern about the $23.2 trillion national debt and the looming insolvency of Social Security.
Virdell argued that there’s a lack of true conservatives in Congress, saying, “When I look at Republicans and Democrats in Washington, there’s 535 members in the House and the Senate, and we can only find about 40 of those guys — maybe 43 — that actually vote with conservative values. That’s disappointing.”
Red Flag Laws
On the subject of “red flag” laws, all candidates said they were opposed to the policy.
“This is a very personal issue here in Hood County … I know that it’s personal because your sheriff, an amazing man, has stood up,” said Pfluger, referring to Roger Deeds’ push for Hood County to become one of the earliest in the state to pass a Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution.
Pfluger emphasized that he had received Deeds’ endorsement.
Border Security and Immigration
Everyone also said that they strongly supported securing our borders.
“We have got to secure our borders, and we’ve got to come up with billions of dollars,” said Faircloth. “But I think we can take that money — if necessary, if Congress doesn’t [approve it] — out of the Defense Department, because it’s obviously a national security problem.”
Batch argued that in addition to building a wall, the U.S. government should place more pressure on the Mexican and Guatemalan governments by leveraging the funding we provide them to ensure that they are helping us deal with the problem of illegal immigration.
“Right now the state of Texas spends $800 million a year for border security,” said Lacy. “That is a federal international border. That is not a state of Texas issue; that is a federal government issue. We could use that $800 million right here back in Texas fixing our infrastructure, couldn’t we?”
Lacy emphasized the need of providing more resources to border patrol and criticized the federal government for putting the burden of funding for border security on the state of Texas.
He also told me after the forum that he wanted to see reform in the immigration process as well, saying that “the red tape of bureaucracy” draws out the immigration process extremely long for people who genuinely want to come to America in search of a better life.
“I think we really need to change that system and start punishing individuals who are committing an illegal act by crossing the border illegally. They need to be deported, put to the back of the line, and let the people who are legally going through the process come through the system,” said Lacy.
“I for one didn’t spend 20 years in the Air Force fighting and being deployed overseas just to come home here and see a porous and insecure border,” said Pfluger, who reiterated his passion for securing the border to me after the forum, touting that he was “the only national security expert in this field of ten candidates.”
Virdell won several applauses from the audience when he said the “catch and release” policy needs to end.
“That absolutely has to end. They need to be charged with criminal trespassing and deported back across. If they do that a second time, I think they should lose the right to apply for citizenship,” said Virdell.
Barber said that “we’ve got to quit being defensive and start being offensive” by going against the cartels.
National Debt and Spending
The candidates unanimously spoke out against the enormous national debt, though some candidates provided more precise ways of addressing it than the others.
Faircloth called for a “federal sunset provision whereby all 456 [federal] agencies undergo sunset, just like they do in Texas.”
“All 456 agencies need to justify their existence,” said Faircloth. “And then that way we can consolidate or eliminate agencies and start saving money and start reducing our deficit.”
To several applauses from the audience, Lacy called for the elimination of federal agencies — namely, the Department of Education, the IRS, and the EPA.
When I asked Lacy if he thought such proposals were actually practical or just an ideal to strive toward, he said that it was something practical he would fight for, believing that Republicans will take back control of the House in 2020 with Trump’s name on the ballot.
“I plan on being a very vocal person,” said Lacy. “I’m not bashful. I’m not quiet. And I’d fight for the right things.”
He noted that abolishing those three agencies would be far from getting the deficit under control, but said that doing so would be “a step in the right direction.”
Luscombe argued that the “deep state” needed to be fought, which he said began when Woodrow Wilson “brought bureaucrats into the federal government because they felt like the Congress is too ignorant to be able to deal with complex problems.”
Virdell was blunt in calling out Republicans and Democrats for increased spending and noted, “The promised benefits that [the federal government has] offered us is up to $200 trillion in debt right now. We’re paying dollars with dimes. That absolutely has to end, and somebody is going to have to break it to you: we don’t have the money.”
Casey Gray said that we needed to “dismantle the VA” and give veterans money directly so that they can choose their own doctors.
All candidates said they wanted to repeal Obamacare.
While Batch said that he was in favor of fully repealing Obamacare, he added, “I don’t see the issue of health care being an issue that needs to be Republican or Democrat. That is an issue that we need to work together on to figure out, because I don’t think that there’s one party that’s going to solve it alone.”
In addition to repealing Obamacare, Tucker also called for upfront medical pricing and drug-pricing reform to prevent pharmaceutical manufacturers from selling drugs in another country for cheaper than in the United States.
“Ever since it was implemented, Republicans have been trying to basically reverse Obamacare,” said Faircloth. “We know what to do. If we can control the House, Republicans know how to do it.”
Republicans controlled Congress and the White House between the 2016 and 2018 elections, but failed to fully repeal Obamacare.
The Farm Bill and Agriculture Subsidies
Lacy argued that agriculture subsidies are needed because of trade imbalances. “When we take care of the trade imbalance,” said Lacy, “there’s no reason for subsidies to go to farmers and ranchers anymore, because now we’re on the level playing field.”
Luscombe said that he opposed how food stamps are tied to the Farm Bill. And respecting subsidies, Luscombe said, “Generally speaking, I oppose subsidies of any kind. I know I’ve got a farmer friend that I buy hay from he said 30 years he’s used the insurance program once. But at the same time, his son believes that there are folks abusing the insurance program.”
Pfluger said that he supported the farm bill and said, “In a perfect world, no, I don’t support subsidies. But what I do support is a safety net because this is a national security level issue.” He also noted that he had been endorsed by the Texas Farm Bureau AGFUND.
Like Luscombe, Tucker said he opposed the farm bill because of its tie to food stamps.
Virdell opposed the farm bill for the same reason and also opposed subsidies.
“Now, I’m a Milton Friedman fan,” said Virdell, “so I think like what he says — a subsidy is when you take money from a profitable company and give it to an unprofitable company. I do not believe in protectionism, I believe that the free market will balance itself out and there will be a course correction, but we have to go through that.”
Barber said he didn’t support the farm bill because it “leaves small farms behind,” but supports some subsidies “because we’ve got to have a safety net.”
Gray also said that he supports subsidies and opposed the food stamps aspect of the farm bill.
Berryhill said that in the farm bill and subsidies, “there’s an amazing amount of corruption going on there,” and said “it must be eradicated.”
Faircloth said “yes and yes” to the farm bill and subsidies, saying “farming is a risky business and they need that safety.” In respect to the food stamp provisions in the farm bill, he argued that there needed to be stronger work requirements for recipients.
Batch said his biggest issue with the farm bill was the extreme length of its text. “We need to get back to handling simple pieces of legislation that the American people understand and stop dealing with these massive thousand page bills that nobody reads,” he said.
Burton asked for a show of hands from the candidates to see who supported term limits for members of Congress. Every candidate did.
“I would like it to be known that the whole audience also raised their hands,” said Burton to some laughter.
After some clarification, all candidates said they oppose abortion in all instances except for Faircloth, who said their should be exceptions in cases of rape and incest.
“I believe that if the woman wants to have an abortion, forcing a woman to carry an unwanted child for nine months and be reminded every morning of a traumatic event is not right for that mother,” said Faircloth.
“What did that innocent child do?” blurted out one audience member at his response.
All candidates expressed in a show of hands that they supported the air strike ordered by President Trump that killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force.
Joining the House Freedom Caucus
In another show of hands, all candidates except for Pfluger and Batch said that they would join the House Freedom Caucus.
Batch later said in respect to that response, “Here’s what I want people to understand: I’m my own man, and I am your man, and I represent you.”
When I asked August to clarify his response, since he had partially raised his hand, he told me, “If being part of the Freedom Caucus allows me to serve the 750,000 constituents in this district, then I’m all in …. But my oath is to the Constitution, not a caucus.”
Role Models in Congress
As the last question before closing statements, the candidates were asked which member of Congress they would be most likely to emulate. Here are their responses:
- Tucker: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)
- Virdell: Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-TX-01), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Chip Roy (R-TX-21), Ron Wright (R-TX-06), and Van Taylor (R-TX-03)
- Barber: Cruz (“when he first got there, not now”) and Jordan
- Gray: Reps. Gohmert, Jordan, Trey Gowdy (R-SC, 2011-2019), and Brian Mast (R-FL)
- Berryhill: Reps. Mark Meadows (R-NC), Gohmert, Roy, and Jordan
- Faircloth: Reps. Jordan, Mac Thornberry (R-TX-13)
- Batch: Rep. Gowdy
- Lacy: Rep. Gohmert
- Luscombe: “There’s no reason for me to name the names that have already been named …. I’m the oldest in the group. I’m not gonna be up there for 20 years … because I need to go fishing someday.”
- Pfluger: Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX-02)
The Rest of the Primary Race
The ten candidates that participated in Tuesday’s forum will continue to travel around the district and court voters ahead of the primary election on March 3.
Pfluger and Lacy had emerged as the largest fundraisers in the third quarter of 2019, but more recent reports that will include the fundraising totals of all candidates will become available in February.
With such a large number of candidates, a runoff in the race is extremely likely. That election will be held at the end of May.
The Republican nominee is likely to win in November’s general election given the district’s electoral history, but one Democrat, one Libertarian, and one independent have all filed to be on the ballot as well.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.