Rep. Michael Burgess is facing the primary scenario Republicans feared: He’s a longtime incumbent and ally of leadership, challenged by a newcomer inspired by President Donald Trump.
Adding to the uncertainty: His North Texas district is one of the fastest growing in the country, and full of new voters local GOP leaders are still scrambling to identify.
Those dynamics have attracted the attention of party leaders in Washington who are eyeing just four serious incumbent primary threats this year. Burgess’ March 6 primary is the first. The GOP is also watching Reps. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., and Martha Roby, R-Ala.
Burgess’s challenger, Veronica Birkenstock, is a Frisco businesswoman and Trump fundraiser who’s solidly aligning herself with the president.
Though Burgess has voted nearly 95 percent of the time with the president and hasn’t faced a serious race since he was first elected in 2002, a surge in Trump’s popularity combined with the district’s growth spurt has left even party leaders unsure what will happen.
“We have a choice between a respected, honored conservative who’s been in office a few years, and a challenger who is conservative, who is very eager to serve the people of this county and this congressional district,” said John Dillard, chair of the Denton County GOP. “It’s nice to have choices, I think they’re both qualified.”
Denton has grown quickly in the time Burgess has been in office.
Just under 500,000 people lived in the county when he left his medical career to run for the seat, defeating the son of retiring House Majority Leader Dick Armey. He’s been reelected seven times since then, never taking less than 60 percent of the vote.
Denton County had roughly 660,000 residents in the 2010 census, and was estimated to have more than 800,000 in 2016. It’s expected to top a million within the next decade.
“We have a network of precinct chairs and one of their jobs is to find the new voters, but it generally takes a year or two for that to shake out… that’s our concern,” said Dillard.
Burgess is working hard to keep up.
His district includes most of Denton County, as well as a portion of Tarrant County.
In recent election cycles, Burgess’s campaign has used the type of introductory mailers usually reserved for new candidates, not 15-year incumbents, in order to reach voters who have just moved to the area.
He’s also aggressively courting conservatives, a small number of whom will likely decide who holds the deep red seat in November. Wednesday morning he was a guest on North Texas conservative radio host Mark Davis’s show.
That afternoon he praised Trump for a “phenomenal” first year, speaking to a receptive audience of GOP activists at El Chaparral Grille in Denton.
Describing his role in the House’s failed attempts to repeal Obamacare, Burgess said Vice President Mike Pence had made a personal appeal for him to stay in Congress and continue that effort.
“When the vice president tells you you need to be there, you’ve got to take him seriously,” Burgess told local Republicans.
Birkenstock was invited but did not attend the candidate forum, organized by the Denton Republican Women's Club. Flyers on the seats from her campaign featured a photo of Birkenstock with Trump, and said she stands with the America First Agenda.
She did not immediately respond to questions about her campaign.
In an interview with the Star-Telegram after the event, Burgess said Trump’s popularity had lapped him in his own district since the 2016 election.
Burgess took 68 percent of the vote in that election, while Trump won with 61 percent.
By his own polling, Burgess said Trump’s favorability in his district is now more than 70 percent.
“You could pick any given day on the calendar year in 2017 and say, ‘That was a kind of chaotic day, started off with a Tweet (and) evolved into some other story you didn’t expect,” said Burgess. “But when you look at the year in its totality, this country has moved more in the correct direction in the past year that any other year I’ve been there.”
Birkenstock has picked up endorsements from local conservative groups, including the NE Tarrant Tea Party and the Denton County Conservative Coalition, as well a few dozen local precinct chairs.
Burgess had more than $750,000 in his campaign account at the end of year, but said Wednesday he’s not running TV ads for the primary. Birkenstock has raised about $117,000, and spent $105,000. She had about $11,000 on hand.
Once an outsider candidate himself, Burgess is now a member of the tea party caucus in Congress, and has the support of top house party leaders.
How Burgess’ Congressional credentials will translate to GOP primary voters in the era of Trump confounds even local party leaders.
“One of the biggest questions I ask knocking doors is, ‘What’s important to you?’ said Mark Roy, a Republican candidate for Texas’s House District 64. “There’s a lot of them that don’t even have an answer. They tell me, ‘Mark, I just want a conservative.’”