March 10, 2020
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Republican August Pfluger came as close to perfect as it gets in a debut as a candidate who found a way to win the Super Tuesday primary election in a field with nine foes in an open West Texas congressional race that appeared to be shaping up as ultimate territorial war in the early stages.
Pfluger had the potential on paper to be a legitimate contender in Congressional District 11 as a war hero who'd left the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel before a brief stint in President Donald Trump's administration as a member of the National Security Council staff. But Pfluger had the numbers working against him as a San Angelo resident in a district where the Midland-Odessa area had more than double the number of voters and the first and only incumbent in the current configuration of CD 11.
Pfluger's path had been complicated even more by the fact that he's rancher in a district where the oil and gas industry that's anchored in Midland and Ector counties ostensibly wielded more clout with the rank-and-file electorate. The big energy forces had more resources to invest in the competition to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway of Midland than agricultural interests could ever imagine. The folks who make the Permian Basin engine run simply weren't going to let some new kid from the other end of the block jet into town and take the U.S. House seat away from its rightful owners.
Or so they thought before Pfluger posed his first campaign finance report in October with more than $700,000 in donor dollars before rounding up a half-million more from a rapidly-growing base of supporters by the end of 2019. This might have been Pfluger's first rodeo. But the guy clearly wasn't the proverbial set of empty boots crowned with a cowboy hat.
Whether by sheer coincidence or visionary field-clearing in advance, Pfluger had received a major break when he turned out to be the only Republican hopeful in CD 11 from San Angelo - the district's third largest city that has less than half as many residents than Midland-Odessa combined. Midland in the meantime had four Republican candidates in the hunt with three other GOP hopefuls located in the oil-pumping mecca of Andrews just 45 minutes away at the western end of CD 11 not far from the state line that separates Texas and New Mexico.
But Pfluger would take nothing for granted despite the potential for a Midland-Odessa split at the ballot box - and he kept the pedal down all the way from the starting gates to the finish line while pushing his total fundraising take to almost $1.4 million heading into the final three weeks before the primary vote. The conventional sentiment had been that Pfluger would have to have more campaign cash than the primary rival who'd appeared to be the energy business choice - J. Ross Lacy - a former Midland City Council member who's the president of his own oil company.
The initial perception from Austin was that the GOP primary in CD 11 would be a stage for a vintage intramural establishment fight with Lacy behind the energy business banner while agriculture unified behind Pfluger. Odessa business owner Jamie Berryhill had a significant number of hardline conservatives in his corner for the congressional battle with endorsements from the U.S. House Freedom Caucus campaign committee, the Texas Right to Life PAC and Texas Values Action. But there would be no consensus pick on the hard right after Lacy received an endorsement from the Young Conservatives of Texas and other prominent groups stayed on the sideline.
Brandon Batch threw a curve into the primary dynamics when he entered the ring as a former Midland High School football player whose brother had been a star running back at Texas Tech University before a stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers ended with a devastating knee injury. That made it more difficult to bring competing Midland forces together for a united front in CD 11. Lacy received glowing reviews nonetheless from local powers that be like Ernie Angelo - a former Midland mayor who served on the National Republican Committee. Lacy also had supporters from outside West Texas with endorsements from GOP State Senators Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway, Donna Campbell of New Braunfels and Brandon Creighton of Conroe. Pfluger amassed an arsenal of endorsements himself with matched that with U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Houston, State Senator Charles Perry of Lubbock, State Rep. Drew Darby of San Angelo and current Midland Mayor Patrick Payton.
But the name game amounted to little more than sideshow minutia after President Donald Trump bestowed his support in a tweet on Pfluger in a surprise move that effectively torpedoed any hopes that other Republicans in the race had for late surges. Trump actually hadn't shown any interest whatsoever in the CD 11 sweepstakes in a guaranteed Republican district where he'd reaped almost 78 percent of the vote in 2016. The sudden show of Pfluger support appeared to be more of a presidential show of gratitude for American Farm Bureau officials who'd rolled the red carpet out for him at their convention in Austin in January.
Pfluger - a former fighter pilot in the war on terror - expressed guarded optimism in the campaign's closing days about an outright victory that would have seemed all but impossible just three months ago in a crowded field and so many competing interests at stake. He'd been hovering just under the overtime prevention threshold in the wee hours of the morning after the primary vote before the final unofficial returns put the race to rest with 52 percent for the winner.
The Best of the Election selections for 2020 Texas primary will be unveiled this month in separate installments.