Rep. Joe Barton’s decision to forgo his bid for his 2018 reelection bid will trigger a fierce political battle over a long-held Republican seat in North Texas.
Barton, 68, Texas’ longest-serving House member, announced Thursday he had canceled plans to seek an 18th term, after a leaked nude video prompted women to come forward to talk about the Congressman’s history of extramarital relationships.
One constituent told the Star-Telegram Wednesday that the Congressman sent her inappropriate messages on Facebook over the course of several years.
Local GOP officials encouraged Barton to step aside ahead of Texas’s filing deadline, Dec. 11. The primary will be held March 6.
Barton said in a statement that he was proud of his more than three-decade record in Washington, but that it was “time to step aside and let there be a new voice.”
One GOP candidate, Jake Ellzey, already filed to run as a Republican before Barton’s announcement Thursday.
Ellzey, a former Navy fighter pilot, said in a statement that Barton's sexually explicit photos “had no bearing” on his decision. Ellzey said he commissioned polling on the race before the news became public.
Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright, a former chief of staff and district director for Barton, will also run as a Republican. Wright has the backing of state Sen. Konni Burton, who encouraged Barton to step aside.
GOP State Sen. Brian Birdwell, whose district includes Navarro, Ellis and Tarrant counties, said he will not run for the seat.
If Barton resigned from the seat before the November election, it would open up a special election next year that both parties could target.
Texas uses an open primary system in special elections, where candidates from all parties appear on a single ballot. If no candidate takes more than 50 percent, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to a runoff.
“If it were a regular open seat I don’t think it would be that competitive, but a special election scenario could have low turnout, which would help Democrats,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
President Donald Trump won Barton’s district with 54 percent of the vote last year. Hillary Clinton took 42 percent. The voting age population is 17.7 percent Hispanic and 17.5 percent black, according to the Democratic group Lone Star Project.
The district is less Democratic-leaning than the four Congressional seats national Democrats are targeting in Texas next year. Those include districts represented by GOP Reps. Will Hurd, Pete Sessions and John Culberson, plus retiring Rep. Lamar Smith’s open seat.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is watching several candidates for Barton’s race, but has not named it a target. It took a similar approach to Smith’s district, before that race became an open seat.
Barton’s 2016 opponent, Ruby Woolridge, is running again in 2018. Woolridge took 39 percent against Barton in 2016, the most any Democrat has received against Barton in his more than three decade career. Woolridge has raised $7,700 for the race, and had $1,700 on hand as of Sept. 30.
“I’m embarrassed for him, citizens deserve better,” Woolridge said of Barton last week. “He should step down immediately.”
Woolridge said the Republican Party as a whole faces a morality crisis right now, citing Alabama Senate Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of inappropriate relationships with minors.
“Now that the Republican Party is the party of pedophiles, that changes a lot of minds,” Woolridge said, referencing Moore.
Barton said his relationships were with consenting adults.
Woolridge met with the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington in September, and spoke with Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez about her race at the state Democratic executive committee meeting in Austin over the summer.
National Democrats have met with another candidate, public relations specialist Jana Lynne Sanchez, who attended the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s candidate forum in Washington last month. She’s been endorsed by the New Democrat Coalition and Climate Hawks Vote.
“2018 is the year women say, ‘We’ve had enough,’” Sanchez told the Star-Telegram. “It started with Trump and it’s going to finish with a big blue wave of women sweeping into office.”
Sanchez is part of a group of North Texas Democratic women who could be featured in a documentary about women running for office, which could be released before Election Day. She’s raised more than $100,000, and told the Star-Telegram she’d seen a boost in interest for the race since Barton’s controversy began.
Locksmith Justin Snider, Levii Shocklee of Arlington and Christian University alumnus John Duncan, who works for a HIV/AIDS treatment non-profit, are also running as Democrats.
Duncan said in a statement Thursday that Barton’s retirement “will allow us to stay focused on discussions about job creation, economic growth, healthcare affordability, public education improvements, and other topics that affect the day-to- day lives of the hard-working families of our district.”