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Southlake mayor and Dinesh D’Souza’s son-in-law lead pack in open North Texas congressional primary

By Matthew Choi, The Texas Tribune

Southlake mayor and Dinesh D’Souza’s son-in-law lead pack in open North Texas congressional primary” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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WASHINGTON — The frontrunner in the Republican primary to replace longtime Congressman Michael Burgess of Lewisville is a 29-year-old political newcomer, Brandon Gill, who helped make a name for himself in politics by marketing the election conspiracy theory documentary “2000 Mules” with his father-in-law Dinesh D’Souza.

Trailing closely behind him is John Huffman, the mayor of Southlake — a wealthy Dallas-Fort Worth suburb that drew national attention after it became ground zero in the GOP battle against diversity and inclusion policies in public schools.

The two hard-charging social conservatives are leading with money and endorsements among the pack of Republicans vying for the party’s nomination for North Texas’ Congressional District 26.

Burgess held the seat for two decades and is joining a train of seasoned, serious lawmakers leaving Congress as it grows increasingly partisan and decreasingly effective.

In his eleven terms in office, Burgess has joined the ranks of the most senior Republicans in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Rules Committee and the House Budget Committee. The Energy and Commerce Committee covers a vast array of issues, from fossil fuels to health care costs, and is often among the most coveted assignments among Texas Republicans.

When asked about the primary race to replace him, Burgess quipped, “No one can replace me!”

His retirement leaves a rare opening for a seat in a comfortably red district: voters supported Donald Trump over Joe Biden in the district by more than 19 percentage points.

Luisa Del Rosal is among the Republican primary candidates for the 26th Congressional District, left vacant by outgoing U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville.
Luisa Del Rosal is among the Republican primary candidates for the 26th Congressional District, left vacant by outgoing U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville. Credit: Campaign website

In total, there are 11 candidates in the GOP primary, including former congressional chief of staff Luisa Del Rosal, who is touting her past experience leading the office of U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio; and former Denton County judge and Republican scion Scott Armey, who is making another go for the seat after losing the Republican primary to Burgess when he first ran over 20 years ago.

If no candidate wins a majority of the vote in the March 5 primary, there will be a runoff election in May. Del Rosal said the crowded primary means it’s anyone’s race.

“All of us need to overcome a lot of name ID in this massive district that has been used to voting for Dr. Burgess for 20 years,” Del Rosal said. “So it is literally anybody’s game.”

Fiery friends

A fresh face in Texas politics, Brandon Gill has already amassed the backing of some of the biggest firebrands in the GOP — both in and out of the state including former President Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.

Gill grew up on a cattle ranch outside Abilene — a city about two hours from the North Texas district. He moved to the district about a year before Burgess announced his retirement from New York City, where he worked in finance.

His profile has been boosted by his famous father-in-law D’Souza, the far-right author and documentarian, whom he worked with in the production of “2000 Mules.” The documentary, whose claims have been debunked by dozens of lawsuits challenging the 2020 election, asserted that Trump was robbed of victory that year. Gill helped with marketing on the film, which became popular viewing in right-wing circles in Texas.

Gill said in an interview that he still believes the 2020 election was stolen. Asked if he would accept the results of this year’s elections, he said, “if they’re legitimate.”

“We’ll take a look at all the evidence at the time and we’ll decide when it happens,” Gill said.

Gill is pitching himself as an extension of Trump. He cited fortifying the border as his principal policy objective, including “deporting illegal aliens that Joe Biden brought into this country,” noting that it was a priority for the former president.

Trump has responded to the nod of loyalty.

“Brandon is Strong on SECURING OUR BORDER, STOPPING CRIME, FIGHTING INFLATION, & PROTECTING OUR SECOND AMENDMENT,” Trump wrote on social media in December. “He also comes with the love and respect of his father-in-law, a true warrior, Dinesh D’Souza.”

Gill previously ran a right-wing news website, the DC Enquirer, where he was “going to bat for President Trump in the public square,” he said. The website, which still bears his name, said Gill stepped back from its editorial content to run for office.

“We do not claim to be without bias- we are unabashedly conservative,” the site says.

Gill also has the endorsements of Texas congressmen Troy Nehls of Richmond, Ronny Jackson of Amarillo and Lance Gooden of Terrell. This past weekend Gaetz and Rep. Cory Mills of Florida campaigned with him in Denton County.

The House Freedom Caucus’s campaign arm also endorsed him, and Gill said he hopes to join the far-right group if he’s elected to Congress. Club for Growth, the influential conservative political action committee, is also backing Gill. His campaign raised over $478,000 as of the end of last year, more than any other candidate, and D’Souza gave $250,000 to the Right Texas super PAC that is backing Gill.

The pugnacious conservatives who are backing Gill are often vocal opponents of the cross-aisle comity that used to be more common in Congress. Gill is no different. He lamented “weak Republicans” who are “lacking backbone” in Washington and promised to hold the line against Democrats.

“We’ve got to get conservative fighters in Washington, particularly from the red seats like this one in Texas 26,” Gill said. “The Democrat Party that we were up against 20 or 30 years ago … that Democrat Party is dead and gone, and we’ve got to get Republicans who can wake up and realize that we’re up against a much darker, much more sinister foe.”

War on woke

Huffman is contrasting his conservative resume against Gill’s by touting his political experience leading Southlake, one of Texas’ richest cities with a population of about 31,000.

“We’re running this whole race on experience,” said Huffman, who has been an elected official for nearly 10 years with Southlake. “You don’t have to worry about what I will do because you can look at what I have done.“

Huffman said he wants to do for the country what he helped do for his home city.

In 2020 and 2021, Southlake was at the epicenter of debates over diversity and inclusion efforts in public schools after administrators attempted to address racism in its curriculum through a proposed “Cultural Competence Action Plan.” The plan was a response to a 2018 clip showing Southlake teens chanting the N-word, and it came at a time of a national reckoning over racism that followed the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.

In Southlake, however, the political pendulum began to swing back. The plan faced fierce backlash among parents, with accusations that it was introducing critical race theory into public schools — something that would go on to animate the party in Texas and nationwide.

As mayor, Huffman fought to overturn the plan and to replace members of the school board with more like-minded members. He was a founding donor to Southlake Families, a political action committee that supported conservative candidates for the board. Candidates against the plan eventually won a majority in the school board and banned additional diversity and LGBTQ initiatives in the district.

Texas has followed Southlake’s model, passing legislation last year banning diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at public universities.

Huffman hopes to do the same at the federal level, including the military and the Department of Education, where he views diversity initiatives as a waste of money.

“The administrators in the school presented a very radical DEI plan. We stood up as a community and we fought it,” Huffman said. “We’re very proud of that record that needs to happen across the federal government including the military. And I’ll tell you that I am laser focused on fighting the woke and weaponized bureaucracy.”

Huffman said he also hopes to continue Burgess’ legacy, working many of the same health care issues Burgess tackled on the Energy and Commerce Committee and balancing the federal budget.

With over $303,000 raised as of the end of last year, Huffman was second in fundraising to Gill. But he’s garnered some of his own high profile endorsements. U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Irving, backed Huffman, citing his “unflinching conservative leadership.” Former Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed Huffman to the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists in 2012, also supports him.

“John is truly a happy, conservative warrior who keeps his head down, gets the job done, and delivers wins for North Texans,” Van Duyne said in an email. “He’s the only candidate in this race with that kind of track record for North Texas.”

Endorsements aren’t everything

Del Rosal is unfazed by the flashy endorsements some of her rivals have and is quick to point out endorsements don’t guarantee victories.

Just last month, Jill Dutton beat Brent Money in a competitive special election runoff for Texas House District 2, despite Money having endorsements from Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Cruz. U.S. Rep. Jake Ellzey beat Trump-backed Susan Wright in a 2021 special election, Del Rosal pointed out.

And Burgess himself beat Armey in 2002, when Armey was a Republican princeling with the blessing of some of the most powerful conservatives in the country at the time.

Armey’s father, Dick Armey, held the seat from 1985 until Burgess’ swearing in and was a giant in the House Republican conference. He served as House majority leader under speakers Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert. Before then, he was chair of the House Republican Conference and capped his career as the inaugural chair of the House Homeland Security Committee after 9/11. Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan worked for Dick Armey in the late 1990s. President George W. Bush affectionately called the younger Armey “Scotty.”

Scott Armey is among the Republican primary candidates for the 26th Congressional District, left vacant by outgoing U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville.
Scott Armey is among the Republican primary candidates for the 26th Congressional District, left vacant by outgoing U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville. Credit: Social media campaign page/Kate Baumgartner

Scott Armey was the favored candidate in that race among Washington types. But Burgess cast Armey as trying to inherit the position. He filled the district with ads bragging that Dick Armey was not his father.

Armey still enjoys the support of his father and former Sen. Phil Gramm, who also endorsed him in 2002. But he has had more difficulty raising money this cycle, reporting only just $95,000 by the end of last year.

Armey said the latest fundraising numbers only reflect just over a month’s worth of fundraising and that his community has responded positively to his candidacy. He’s lived in the area for over 50 years and worked on a host of local development projects as county commissioner and county judge, including on the Texas Motor Speedway, though some of that development-focused mindset contributed to his loss in 2002.

“I’ll match up that endorsement of people who are a part of this community and people who have worked and labored and helped grow this community against anybody’s list of endorsements,” Armey said.

Del Rosal brings Washington experience to the field. Her former boss, Gonzales, is known for his cross-party friendships and willingness to buck his party leadership. After the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde, he was the only Texas House Republican to vote for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act — the first major gun safety bill passed by Congress in decades.

Del Rosal said she would run in a similar mold, prioritizing policy over soundbytes. She stressed the importance of a strong border but also emphasized kitchen table issues for the district, including improved highways to match the district’s explosive growth and affordable health care as Burgess advocated. Gonzales has backed Del Rosal’s run.

“I’m going to be somebody who’s pragmatic, who’s willing to work across the aisle for sure. But most of all, what I’m going to do is work for Texas 26. And that’s it,” Del Rosal said. “If more representatives understood that that is truly the role — it’s literally called representatives — we’d have a more successful Congress.”

As for Burgess, he is keeping his preferences to himself. He said he might endorse in a runoff, but is keeping quiet before March 5.

“​​When I first ran 22 years ago, I kind of made a big deal over Washington shouldn’t pick a representative,” he said. “The people should.”

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