For almost 18 years, East Texas has sent Rep. Louie Gohmert (R) to Congress with little hesitancy despite a colorful and often controversial career.
So, after Gohmert launched his unsuccessful bid for state attorney general, would voters in Texas’s 1st Congressional District want another provocateur to succeed him?
Not a chance.
Republican primary voters instead backed Nathaniel Moran, county judge of Smith County.
“I’m a person that loves to be part of a team,” Moran said in a telephone interview Friday. As an evangelical Christian, Moran said he considers his mission to be a “principled conservative” who works to find “pragmatic” solutions to help East Texas.
“I really can be a true conservative and a thoughtful policymaker,” he added.
In early March, Moran won the primary by almost 40 percentage points, setting himself on course for what should be an easy November victory. Gohmert won by at least 45 percentage points in his last seven elections.
Moran’s easy victory went largely overlooked by the national media, campaign operatives and many lawmakers, because the reliably red district will play no role in determining the majority in midterm elections.
But races like these can have an outsize impact on the internal dynamics of House caucuses, especially when primary voters pick firebrands who attract attention through cable news and social media.
Democrats have had their share of left-wing victors who caused trouble for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) these past four years, but Republicans have ended up with far more rabble-rousers — and rule-breakers, norm-crushers and white-supremacy-embracers — who caused endless headaches the past decade for two GOP speakers, John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), and now Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).
Two years ago Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) defeated a brain surgeon in a runoff to claim the seat of a retiring 10-year veteran who devoted his final two years in office to a bipartisan effort to make Congress function better. Greene, who easily beat several GOP primary challengers this week, has suggested she will issue a set of demands before voting for McCarthy for speaker if Republicans win the majority.
Gohmert is one of 16 House Republicans who decided to retire or seek a different office, almost all from safe GOP seats. So these Republican primaries will help determine whether Greene ends up with more agitator allies or if their numbers will be small enough that GOP leaders can avoid kowtowing to their purity demands.
So far this spring, the GOP’s governing wing has had some success.
Earlier this month Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), whose actions have landed him in an ethics investigation just 16 months into office, lost to an establishment-backed state senator, Chuck Edwards. The victor accused Cawthorn of being a performative politician who devoted little time to constituent services and whose personal behavior embarrassed western North Carolina.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) — who spoke at the pre-riot rally and asked attendees if they were “willing to do what it takes to fight for America” — had so easily won his six elections to his North Alabama district that Democrats didn’t bother to field a challenger in 2020. He frequently clashed with Boehner and Ryan, and after the Capitol riot, GOP leaders privately questioned whether his comments put people in danger.
Like Gohmert, Brooks left behind his safe House seat for a statewide office, finishing second in Tuesday’s Senate primary and heading to a runoff next month.
In the race to succeed Brooks, Dale Strong, chairman of the Madison County Commission, led the rest of the field by more than 20 percentage points, finishing a bit shy of the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff.
Strong presents as a fervent supporter of Trump — he hosted him at a 2016 rally before 20,000 people in North Alabama — and ran an ad touting himself as “Trump conservative Dale Strong for Congress.”
But his campaign launch focused much more on his Christian values and his years spent as a firefighter. His website does not list “election integrity” among his most important issues, although a Facebook posting last year did include a line that Trump “IS our President and will be again!”
He will have to get past a more conspiratorial candidate in the runoff, Casey Wardynski, who was assistant secretary of the Army in the last two years of the Trump administration. Wardynski has questioned whether the “FBI had provocateurs in the crowd” on Jan. 6, 2021, and his campaign lists “restoring election integrity” as a top issue.
But this trend isn’t playing out everywhere, and GOP leaders face a difficult situation in Georgia’s 10th Congressional District, where staunch conservative Rep. Jody Hice (R) lost his bid for secretary of state.
In the race to succeed Hice, both Republicans who advanced to the runoff have embraced Trump’s election falsehoods and both want to deny McCarthy the big gavel. “I would like to have President Trump as speaker of the House,” Vernon Jones, whom the ex-president endorsed, said during the campaign.
In East Texas, Moran said he wants no part of that internal drama. He has already launched a leadership PAC so that he can raise and donate money to other Republican candidates to try to win the majority.
His path to winning the nomination to succeed Gohmert could serve as boilerplate for other candidates who do not want to run as mini-Trump clones.
Raised outside Tyler, Tex., not far from the Louisiana border, Moran came up through traditional conservative ranks, volunteering as a Boy Scout leader and serving in several local GOP posts. He spent four years on the city council and the past six years as county judge, an executive post with lots of responsibility but not much direct power.
The former high school quarterback said it requires “persuasive authority” to get things done, proclaiming that his deeply held faith taught him to treat “everyone with respect.”
The business community gravitated toward Moran when Gohmert announced he would leave his seat, but he also went to every possible meeting with far-right conservative groups devoted to Trump.
He defused the 2020 election issue by pointing to his county judge record of investing in new voting machines, that he says are considered among the safest in the nation, and reviewing voter data to assure ballot accuracy.
That let those Trump voters know he understood their concerns without buying into their false conspiracy. “The focus is,” he said, “what can we do from this point forward?”
Democrats in the long-shot race criticized Moran for accepting support from corporate PACs and the nominee, Jrmar Jefferson, who was a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the 2016 Democratic convention, accused local GOP officials of suppressing Black votes by placing more election spots in wealthy, Whiter neighborhoods.
“Any act of obstruction of our voting rights is an attack on your children,” Jefferson told local media.
Moran, 47, pays respect to Gohmert without embracing his more outlandish behavior, praising his “stalwart conservative” record that worked on “liberty” issues.
But there will be some big policy differences.
Gohmert has opposed half of the 16 bills approved by the House to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Cawthorn and Brooks have voted against six of those anti-Russia measures.
Moran said he rejects that part of the America First movement and wants more sanctions against Russia and more U.S. troops in Europe, a national security outlook in line with the Reagan-Bush world view.
“We also need to take personal sanctions against [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, who is at the center and heart of this. We need to push back hard against this,” Moran said during a local media appearance earlier this year.
Even though his November race is all but assured, Moran thinks it’s too soon to talk publicly about his committee assignments. He’s happy to go wherever the leadership think he can make a difference.
“I’ve got to find the right role for me so that, as a team, we can move the needle forward,” he said. “I want to be authentic to who I am.”