AMARILLO, TEXAS—The Democratic candidate for Congress in the most Republican congressional district in America does not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Ever. Nor does he wear an American flag lapel pin. Ever. He prefers a small golden pin of the Constitution, etched with the phrase “We The People.” “I don’t have to pledge my allegiance. I’m a Vietnam vet. I’ve already demonstrated it,” he says. “None of these symbols of America mean anything to me any more.”
Greg Sagan is 70 years old. He has the swept-back gray hair and assured, learned manner of a former corporate consultant, which he is. When he campaigns he wears a navy blue suit jacket and a blue name tag that reads: “Greg Sagan. Democrat for U.S. House. District 13.” Even though he had a column in the local newspaper for 14 years, he needs the name tag, because he hasn’t run any television ads. He hasn’t put up any billboards. His opponent, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, has raised $1.1 million, and Sagan has raised a little over $20,000. He’s spent most of that money driving around the district for the past year, holding town halls, asking people what they want. His driver is his wife Dianne, who is also his campaign manager. The fact that he is, statistically, the Democrat with the biggest uphill battle in the nation does not appear to bother him a bit.
We’re sitting in a red upholstered booth in a Denny’s in late September, just off I-40 in east Amarillo, TX. We’re in the middle of Texas’ 13th Congressional District, rated as +33 points Republican, which makes it the reddest district you will find anywhere in our 50 states. Beginning just outside of Dallas, TX-13 stretches northwest to encompass the entire 40,000 square miles of the Texas panhandle. It would take you six hours to drive it end to end. The district is home to Wichita Falls, and a lot of little dot-on-the-map towns, and a whole lot of prairie. Mostly, it is home to Amarillo.
From that Denny’s parking lot, you can see a Subway, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, a Wendy’s, a Taco Bell, an IHOP, a Cracker Barrel, a Ford dealership, a Chevy dealership, a Discount Tire, a Red Roof Inn, a Days Inn, a La Quinta Inn, a Quality Inn, a Sleep Inn, a Comfort Inn, and a Chevron. You can see America. Amarillo has nice neighborhoods of ranch houses and picture-perfect lawns on its west side, and the east side is full of shabbier houses that are all just a triangle on top of a rectangle. On the west side is a sprawling medical complex, where pristine hospitals and clinics surround a lovely city park. The city sits on the old Route 66, and a stretch of the road west of downtown has been revitalized with bars, restaurants, and antique stores selling all sorts of Route 66-branded detritus. Vast swaths of the north side of town—what should be the urban core—are boarded up or vacant buildings, dotted with discount used car lots and the type of bars so outwardly grim that you can’t tell if they’re open or not. A 20 minute drive south past nothing but shin-high grass and thin barbed wire fences brings you to Palo Duro Canyon, Texas’ more modest version of the Grand Canyon. In the visitor’s center, a historic plaque describes the “Indian Campaigns 1871-1875” thusly: “Mackenzie’s columns defeated the hostiles in Palo Duro Canyon. By June 1875 all the Southern Plains Indians were on reservations in Oklahoma.”
Greg Sagan grew up in a military family. His dad moved them to Amarillo in 1960. In those pre-Southern Strategy days, it was a solidly Democratic city, though just as conservative as it is now. Sagan went and fought in Vietnam as a young man, did corporate work in the 1970s, then returned to the Navy in 1980, working as an HR consultant before leaving the military for good in 1984. He studied economics in graduate school. He did consulting for nuclear power plants. He moved back to Amarillo in 1996, got married, wrote weekly columns in the local paper, a rare (more or less) liberal voice around town. A few years ago, he retired. Then Donald Trump got elected.
Sagan had never thought of going into politics before. He is not exactly the activist type. He has the sort of strong but silent moral code that builds up in families that serve in the military for generation after generation. “The people I feel an affinity for are people like me who, out of the best intentions, went off to a terrible war, did their best in that war, and came off feeling guilty about it,” he says. His entire career path—military, strategic consulting, economics—has led him to value precision, competency, and dependability. It is not hard to see how a man like Donald Trump offends virtually every sensibility that he possesses. “There’s been nobody more dangerous in the White House in my lifetime,” he says. “And the Republican Party, as I feared they would, turned into a bunch of facilitators of his conduct.”
Sagan more or less unilaterally decided to run for Congress, informed the state Democratic Party, and was essentially told: great, good luck. Neither the state nor the national party are giving him money. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has offered nothing. The most outside support he’s gotten was from Joe Biden, who wished him well. This laissez-faire approach by the party is just fine with Sagan. He has a plan. He is ceding the political money and advertising fight to his opponent in favor of a grassroots (read: he and Dianne) effort to turn out the vote, by targeting young people and black people, LGBTQ people and Latinos and women and people who work hard and don’t make enough money. These are the people he sees as his base. They are not served by the Republican Party; they constitute a majority of the residents of the district; and, by and large, they do not vote. Sagan is encouraged by statewide polls that show Texans in general becoming more friendly to Democrats over the past year; but since no one has bothered to conduct real up-to-date polling in his hopelessly one-sided district, the efficacy of his bare-bones campaign strategy can only be judged when the votes are tallied.
It is not as though Mac Thornberry is an unassailable foe. He is a native Texan who has by now spent more time in Washington than in the family ranching business that features prominently in his biography. He was elected to Congress in 1994, in the “Contract With America” days, promising to serve no more than 12 years in office. That was 24 years ago. This fact is much grumbled about in the district. Still, Thornberry is comfortable in his seat. In 2016, running only against a Libertarian and a Green Party candidate, he won with nearly 90 percent of the vote. But Sagan points out that given the area’s low voter turnout, even that margin means that far less than half of the potential voters in the district actually voted for Thornberry. “If I can get half of the people who didn’t vote last time to come out and vote for me, I win,” Sagan says. It sounds so straightforward, in the same way that a pledge to climb Mount Everest does.
Notwithstanding the daunting party numbers in the district, there are things to be learned here. It’s not unreasonable to see Greg Sagan as a Frankenstein’s-monster type of Democratic candidate, assembled out of the ideal pieces of many different constituencies in the party. On one hand, he’s an old white man with a background in the corporate world; on the other, he uses that technical expertise to argue in detail for single-payer healthcare and leftist pro-worker economic policies to fight inequality. He carries a handgun, but he favors gun control. He’s a military veteran with a decorated family history, but he calls the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq “two magnificently myopic disastrous decisions.” He discusses the dangers of climate change with ranchers. He speaks Spanish. He dismisses Trump’s border wall as the idea of a “dope.” And he is zealous on the topic of good government, with specific plans to do away with gerrymandering, roll back Citizens United, and expand voter registration. He is not a California Democrat or a Chicago Democrat or a New York Democrat. He is an Amarillo Democrat. To a degree remarkable for an aspiring politician but unremarkable for a Texan, he truly seems to be guided only by his own logic and convictions to the stubborn exclusion of all other concerns. If the Democratic Party ever decided to really try and compete in the reddest part of this country, it might consider getting behind a man like him.
One remarkable thing about Republicans in Texas is that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they believe they are the reasonable ones, and everyone else is crazy. Nowhere in the state is more sure of this fact than the 13th District. No one in Texas has put this psychic orientation to better use than Ted Cruz, a man who has a tight grip on the state’s Republican base even though he is the least Texan-seeming person you an imagine, a man who drips insincerity like a candle drips wax.
On a recent Friday evening, hundreds of people—poor people, prosperous people, families dressed in church clothes, college girls in short skirts taking duckface Snapchat pics in front of the #MAGA shirt table—filed into an outdoor amphitheater at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens, past the Cruz-branded #TexasCruzer RV, to rally behind Ted. “This is a battle between Texas and socialism!” Cruz thundered, to the hearty approval of the crowd.
The threat of socialism to the government of Amarillo seems scant at best. The amount that Americans fret about socialism is inversely proportional to the chance that they have ever met a socialist. Yet Cruz is a master at channeling the deep Republican conviction that they are a reasonable island in a world gone mad. His most effective refrain about his opponent’s policies (or at least, policies that O’Rourke has said he is “open to,” like abolishing ICE): “That’s just crazy talk!”
The reliability of this critique is interesting when you consider it is coming from the same organization that produced the official 2018 platform of the Republican Party of Texas. There may be no better document for pegging the current sanity level of the redder portions of America’s political spectrum. Among the illuminating sentences included in the platform: a commitment to “the traditional marriage of a natural man and a natural woman”; “We oppose all efforts to classify carbon dioxide as a pollutant”; “No laws or executive orders shall be imposed to limit or restrict access to sexual orientation (change) counseling for self-motivated youth and adults”; “We support the defunding of ‘climate justice’ initiatives, the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, and repeal of the Endangered Species Act”; “We believe the Minimum Wage Act should be repealed”; “We oppose mandates on personal firearms storage”; “we believe the Department of Education should be abolished”; “We demand the State Legislature pass a law prohibiting the teaching of sex education”; “The official position of the Texas schools with respect to transgenderism is that there are only two genders: male and female”; and much more along these lines. The Texas Republican Party platform outlines an ideal state that is just one vast, heavily armed oil field, punctuated by churches preaching that homosexuality is a sin.
“Having an educated population” is also one of the platform’s stated principles.
With 55,000 registered voters encompassing most of Amarillo, Potter County is the urban heart of TX-13. The man responsible for ensuring that all of these people turn out to keep Republicans in power is Daniel Rogers, the chairman of the Potter County Republican Party. I meet him in the office of the property management firm he runs in Amarillo. He sits behind a large, cluttered desk wearing a large, white cowboy hat with a Ted Cruz button on the front and explains why the people here are so heavily Republican.
“They believe in hard work and traditional American pride and values,” he says. “We believe in property rights, and we believe in individual liberty and responsibility. It’s ranching and farming and agriculture is our primary economic driver. Those things people understand when you’re in those businesses, it kinda gives you a good perspective and grounding to understand really what’s important in life. Honesty. You don’t take what’s not yours and give it to somebody else. That doesn’t make sense to us out here. To me, it’s theft. So you have one party that just believes in theft… it’s foreign to [people here]. They can’t understand why that makes sense. They’re logical.” He rattles off the reasons why he believes Trump’s support in the county is strong: tax cuts, draining the swamp, “standing up to foreign countries.” In general, he says, people care about property rights and limited government far more than they care about social issues like gay marriage. But immigration is a strong concern of his.
“I think it’s huge. Especially when you talk to the black community and the Hispanic community, they love Trump because he’s doing something about it. Because those are the two groups that are negatively affected most by pouring in the aliens,” he says. “We’re all one big family up here. And that’s the way it oughta be. But when you bring in people illegally, they don’t assimilate, they don’t learn the language, they congregate in the one area. It’s bad for them, and that’s what creates the conflict. Cause they’re not becoming Americans.”
Rogers, a direct and open man, shares his thoughts on Democrats with little prompting. He suspects that much illegal immigration is a plot by Democrats “to bring in criminal elements into this country, that they want to subvert it.” And their plans do not stop there.
“I believe personally that the left’s ultimate goal is a dictatorship. That’s what they want,” he says. Indeed, his own motivation for being involved in politics is primarily one of civic duty—to see to it that the hard but necessary work of self-governance is done well. “You take the Middle East, they’ve had strong dictators, because those people don’t wanna mess with ruling themselves. Because it’s hard. Takes a lot of time. I don’t like to have to do it. It’s a lot of work. But what’s the alternative?”
Ensuring that the local population stays Republican for years to come is also the job of people like Brennan Leggett, the vice president of the Amarillo Young Republicans. Leggett, an excitable 33-year-old brimming with diffuse political enthusiasm, was born and raised in Amarillo and works for his family’s fur and leather business. He calls himself a “unicorn of politics.” He supported Barack Obama in 2008, and then swung to working to elect Trump in 2016—motivated, he says, by Trump’s personal magnetism and the conviction that he would be a “wrecking ball” that would upend the established political order. He is somewhat less enamored of Mac Thornberry. “When he first ran, he said ‘I’m just going for a few years and I’m gonna come back and be a rancher.’ That was decades ago,” he says.
Still, both Leggett and Rogers are so sure of Thornberry’s reelection that they seem to have only the haziest idea who Greg Sagan even is. The game plan is simple: Republicans here will turn out for Trump, and they will turn out for Ted Cruz. Mac Thornberry does not need any real enthusiasm behind him. He can plan to just coast to Congress over and over again on sheer numerical supremacy. (His office could not point me to any public campaign events in his district during the entire week I was there.) How confident is Thornberry? He hasn’t bothered to update his campaign website since the last election.
What is it about the Texas panhandle that makes it the reddest place from sea to shining sea? The region sits at the center of a conservative trifecta. It has a strong military presence, both in active duty soldiers and major defense contractors; it has a strong Christian presence; and its economy is largely driven by oil and gas and ranching, two industries that tend to see government regulation as an existential threat. Add to this a frontier ethic that many people described to me as “we don’t like being told what to do,” and you have an area that is driven by the flag, the gun, and the cross.
At the same time, the characteristic headstrong resistance to any dictates from above could just as easily plant the seeds of anger towards the governing party. Steve Land, the head of the Potter County Democratic Party, believes, like Greg Sagan, that increasing voter turnout among everyone who’s not a white Republican can lead to real political change in Amarillo. He holds what seems like a genuine conviction that the backlash against Trump combined with Beto O’Rourke-style, unapologetic progressive campaigns can begin to turn even the Texas panhandle purple. But he’s equally pessimistic that the Republicans who are already entrenched here can ever be persuaded to change. “People in Amarillo are not used to having a difference of opinion. It’s been so heavily Republican for so long,” Land says. “The identity politics are involved. Whatever the Democrats say, I don’t think makes any difference to a Republican. He will not listen.”
If that is true, the math for Greg Sagan—and for the Greg Sagans of the foreseeable future—is grim. The blue wave may not break on the prairies of Amarillo. To do what Greg Sagan is doing takes something more than optimism. It takes an irrational sense of duty. “I really do see congressional representatives as being servants of the people, and not their masters,” Sagan says. “I think whenever we lose sight of that, we lose our legitimacy. And right after that we lose our voters.”
If the Navy man who has volunteered to be the most hopeless candidate in America has something to teach the Democratic Party, it is that in a battle, every ship must be manned. Even if it is bound to sink.