In the Texas Panhandle, former lobbyist Josh Winegarner went from a perceived favorite in the March 3 Republican primary for Congress, with nearly 40% of the vote in his favor, to trailing his U.S. Navy veteran opponent in the polls with less than two weeks to go before the primary runoff Election Day. With the former agriculture industry lobbyist's campaign trailing retired Navy Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson in both the polls and in fundraising, Winegarner is now looking to make some establishment magic happen in the Texas' 13th Congressional District.
According to a new poll released last week by Miles of Greatness Fund, which is supporting Jackson's campaign, Winegarner is now trailing Jackson by about 17 points, 46% to 29%. This poll is not the only one to show similar results for Winegarner, with a recent Club for Growth poll showing the lobbyist-turned-politician trailing Jackson by 8 points. What is perhaps most interesting from this particular poll is Winegarner's previous standing in the Club for Growth poll in April, when he was ahead of Jackson by about 11 points.
The turnaround for Jackson and rapid decline of Winegarner's campaign is somewhat surprising considering the establishment support he has pulled in for his campaign. Texas Farm Bureau AGFUND, Realtors PAC, and other well-funded PACs have jumped on board to support Winegarner's campaign, as has the Amarillo political establishment. Amarillo Matters PAC, which has usually been seen dealing in municipal and state legislative races in the Amarillo area, has also thrown in to back Winegarner, even registering with the Federal Election Commission as a federal PAC for the first time during the 2020 campaign.
Still, with the declining poll and fundraising numbers for Winegarner and a recent surge in involvement in the race from President Trump and his son, Don, Winegarner's campaign has turned its strategy from positive to negative, aiming a majority of their attacks at Jackson's military service.
In recent attack ads, Winegarner has aimed his criticism at Jackson's 25 years of service in the U.S. Navy, which kept him out of the Panhandle, and for his promotions while on active duty service.
Jackson, a native of Levelland, attended Texas A&M University before joining the U.S. Navy and serving as a emergency medicine doctor on active duty in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jackson was letter stationed by the Navy to serve in the White House, serving as a physician to the President under Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump. Jackson was later President Trump's nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, but withdrew his nomination to take an advising role in the White House. Following Jackson's retirement from the U.S. Navy in the fall of 2019, he moved his family to Amarillo, and later filed to run for the U.S. House seat being vacated by longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Clarendon).
Winegarner's attacks, featuring a moving van, and comments about Jackson being a "carpetbagger" have received swift push back from veterans in the Amarillo area. Richard Herman, a U.S. Army veteran and former Potter County justice of the peace who also sought the seat in the first primary election, is among those in the veteran community who are pushing back against Winegarner's attacks. The optics of his attacks on Jackson's military service have perhaps been made worse by Winegarner's decision to skip a candidate forum being held by the Amarillo VFW last week, according to event organizers.
However, the criticism has not stopped Winegarner and his allies from amplifying their attacks on Jackson's military service. Ag Together PAC, a super PAC partially funded by Winegarner's employer, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, has recently launched a new ad with similar criticisms of Jackson's service. Amarillo Matters also recently launched a mailer attacking Jackson, including an attack on Jackson's time outside of the Amarillo area while he was on active duty military service.
While Jackson's supporters have defended him amid the attacks, Jackson finally was given the opportunity to respond to Winegarner's attacks in-person during a televised debate in Wichita Falls last month, responding after Winegarner attacked Jackson for allegedly not voting in the 2016 election. Jackson mentioned that he was in Afghanistan before the 2016 election and that his ballot was lost in the mail, but went on to blast Winegarner for his recent line of attacks:
"Until you put on that uniform, Mr. Winegarner, and you go over there in the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, and you’re away from your family for nine to twelve months out of the year, don’t lecture me about your ability to vote. I’m done with that. I’m not going to apologize to you. You have no idea what it’s like to serve in the military. You have no appreciation for our military. You have no respect for our military. You’ve demonstrated that time and time again," Jackson said.
Whoever emerges from this Republican primary will face Libertarian Jack B. Westbrook and either Democratic candidate Greg Sagan or Gus Trujillo in November.
This race is sure to continue heating up as Election Day draws ever closer. Early voting continues until July 10. Election Day is July 14.