An upcoming run-off election in one of the nation’s largest agricultural districts has produced a confrontation, with Texas’ colorful and controversial ag commissioner, Sid Miller, and President Donald Trump on one side, and some of the state’s most influential farm groups on the other.

Miller and Trump are backing Ronny Jackson, a former White House physician and retired Navy admiral whom President Donald Trump nominated as secretary of Veterans Affairs. 

Jackson withdrew from consideration for the VA job in 2018 amid accusations of misconduct and mismanagement in the White House and later got into the race to succeed the retiring Rep. Mac Thornberry in Texas’ sprawling 13th District, which stretches across 41 counties from the Panhandle east to near Fort Worth. 

Trump tweeted his support of Jackson ahead of the March 3 primary, appealing to voters to help him make the runoff, which wound up being delayed until July 14 because of the coronavirus. 

But the Texas Farm Bureau and other ag groups as well as the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, Mike Conaway, are all backing Josh Winegarner, who is director of industry affairs for the Amarillo-based Texas Cattle Feeders Association and a former agricultural policy adviser to Texas Sen. John Cornyn. Winegarner also is on the board and executive committee of the influential Southwest Council of Agribusiness, which represents ag interests in west Texas and the broader region. 

Farm groups backing Winegarner formed a political action committee, Ag Together, that has spent $265,878 on Winegarner's campaign so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks federal campaign spending. 

The Texas Farm Bureau PAC spent $50,000 ahead of the primary and plans to spend another $50,000 ahead of the runoff, said Billy Howe, associate director of government relations for the group. The PAC endorsed Winegarner after county Farm Bureau representatives in the district interviewed the candidates last December. 

The district ranks seventh nationally in the value of its agricultural production, according to USDA’s most recent census. It’s also one of the most Republican districts in the country, so the winner of the GOP primary will likely be the next House member. Trump won 80% of the vote in 2016. 

Winegarner won 39% of the vote in the March primary compared to 20% for Jackson. But the third-place finisher, businessman Chris Ekstorm, who got 15% of the vote, has endorsed Jackson, and Trump confirmed his support of Jackson in May, tweeting that Jackson was “Strong on Crime, the Border and Agriculture - and he loves our Vets! Ronny has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

The Club for Growth, which promotes free-market policies, and a similar state-based conservative group, Empower Texans, also are backing Jackson. An independent PAC formed to support Jackson, the Miles of Greatness Fund, has spent $215,283 on his behalf. 

Winegarner’s group endorsed Miller’s race for re-election as ag commissioner in 2018 when the Texas Farm Bureau did not. But now, Miller is bitterly critical of Winegarner, accusing him of repeatedly deserting Trump on issues such as border security and immigration and criticizing his organization’s support for animal ID requirements. 

“Josh is anti-Trump, always has been,” Miller told Agri-Pulse in an interview this week from his Lubbock regional office. Miller was headed north to Hereford, southwest of Amarillo in the 13th District, to campaign with Jackson. 

Miller also describes Winegarner as the “moderate” in the race. “If you look at Josh’s Facebook page, about the only thing you’ll find pro-Trump is that he wished him a happy birthday.” Miller said. 

After the event in Hereford - a town so synonymous with cattle feeding that the high school mascot is the “Whitefaces,” for the cattle breed - Jackson posted on Facebook that “Texas farmers and ranchers feed the world! In Congress, I will never waver when it comes to defending and growing agricultural production, innovation and dominance in our district!” 

Jackson has criticized Winegarner for lobbying against mandatory country of origin labeling for meat, an issue that’s long controversial in Texas because of the industry’s reliance on importing Mexican cattle. Jackson also argues that he, unlike Winegarner, has Trump's ear and he also has criticized the Texas Cattle Feeders' past support for some Democratic candidates. 

Jackson isn’t originally from the district, and Winegarner has worked to make that an issue, referring to Jackson as his “move-in opponent." Jackson grew up in Levelland, near Lubbock in the 19th District, which became an issue recently in the campaign when Winegarner chided Jackson for claiming to have grown up in the Panhandle. (In Texas, Lubbock and Levelland are considered to be part of the South Plains, rather than the Panhandle.) 

Josh Winegarner

U.S. House candidate Josh Winegarner

Winegarner grew up in Spearman, which is so far north in the Panhandle that it’s closer to Liberal, Kan., than to Amarillo. He defends his support for Trump, says Miller “is disconnected” from his agricultural constituency and that Jackson doesn’t adequately understand farm policy. 

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“The difference is that I also support the president, but I know the district, I know agricultural issues, and I will be able to provide that information to the president, whereas I’m not sure my opponent can do anything but listen to the president and tell us what the president thinks,” Winegarner said. 

Dee Vaughn, a former president of the National Corn Growers Association who farms near Dumas, north of Amarillo, is backing Winegarner and thinks he will be a crucial ally on ag issues. As a Senate aide, Winegarner helped farm groups understand what they needed to do to advance their policy priorities, Vaughn said.

Because of that experience in Washington and his Panhandle background, “he’s the kind of guy who will do very well representing us,” Vaughn said. 

Winegarner is supported by the political action committees of National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Sorghum Producers, National Turkey Federation as well as leaders representing Texas dairy, cotton, corn and wheat producers. 

As of March 31, Winegarner had raised more money than Jackson and had $158,967 on hand, compared to $129,484 for Jackson. 

There also is a runoff for the Democratic nomination as well, but one of the candidates, Greg Sagan, has withdrawn from the race, citing health issues. The other candidate is Gus Trujillo, an office manager who says his priorities include bringing more jobs to the district and providing Americans with a public option for health care coverage. 

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