Amarillo’s fortunes have looked better than they did on May 21, when retired rear admiral Ronny Jackson spoke at a press conference on the thirty-first floor of the city’s tallest building. Outbreaks of COVID-19 at area meatpacking plants, critical to the region’s economy, had been getting steadily worse, forcing many businesses to stay shuttered, even as other parts of Texas reopened. Nary a tumbleweed roamed the streets of downtown.
The admiral had a simple message: brighter days were ahead, and he would bring them. Jackson, who served as the White House doctor for three presidents from 2006 to 2018, had come to publicize the launch of the America First Pharmaceutical Relocation Plan, a campaign he helped kick-start to bring pharmaceutical development and manufacturing to the Panhandle. The pharma plan—along with his many, many Fox News appearances—is a cornerstone of Jackson’s bid to replace retiring U.S. representative Mac Thornberry. In the July 14 runoff, Jackson faces Josh Winegarner, who won 39 to 20 percent in the first round of the GOP primary, and he’s betting that Trump’s strong support will put him over the top.
Amarillo has wanted to lasso Big Pharma for some time. But the effort has been given encouragement by the Trump administration’s desire to repatriate pharmaceutical manufacturing from overseas amid the supply shocks caused by the COVID-19 crisis. In May the administration directed $354 million to an untested Virginia start-up to produce generic drugs and their ingredients in the United States. “That’s a drop in the bucket,” Jackson said at the press conference. He encouraged his audience to imagine that kind of federal money coming to Amarillo, with its nearby veterinary and pharmacy schools, ample logistical connections, and business-friendly environment. And it would help if Amarillo had a congressman with deep ties to the president as he was spreading money around, Jackson told the assembled businesspeople and local officials. Could his opponent say he had peered down Trump’s ear canal?
Trump’s push to bring pharmaceutical manufacturing back to the United States is happening, of course, because of the virus now creating havoc in places like the Panhandle. But few of the business leaders at the event, who skewed older, were wearing masks. Neither was Jackson. (Former mayor Jerry Hodge, who is the co-chair of the pharmaceutical manufacturing task force, said his wife makes him wear a mask—so he cut a cigar hole in the fabric.) After the press conference, Jackson walked up and offered his hand to shake. We sat down at a cloth-covered table looking out over Amarillo’s rail yards. Jackson is a short and intensely energetic Aggie with a winning smile and a boyish look, despite the graying of his neatly trimmed hair.
Jackson’s pitch is that he’ll be Amarillo’s messenger to Trump. “I know the president well. I know all the cabinet members,” he said. “I know everybody in the West Wing. The chief of staff, the national security adviser, [members of] the Domestic Policy Council are all friends of mine.” He continued: “I will be one of the few, if not the only, freshman congressman that can walk into the Oval Office unannounced and tell the president of the United States, ‘Sir, I’ve got something I’ve got to make you aware of,’ and he’ll stop what he’s doing and listen to me.”
It’s difficult to imagine any congressman walking into the Oval Office unannounced, let alone Jackson, whose most weighty piece of medical advice to the president was to exercise more. (By Jackson’s own admission, that recommendation didn’t take.) But it’s true that he seems to have cultivated a rapport with the Trump family. Though the Trumps mostly stayed away from Jackson until the primary reached the runoff stage, they’re sending more and more help to their man in Amarillo. Trump soon tweeted his “complete and total endorsement,” along with a fund-raising link for Jackson’s campaign. Donald Trump Jr. has joined in too, declaring in a video that “the liars in the fake news media and the corrupt deep state are working overtime to destroy my good friend Ronny Jackson.”
It’s an unusual and risky campaign strategy: Jackson is trying to appeal primarily to Trump, in the hopes that the voters will follow. At a time when Republican fortunes are directly linked to Trump’s handling of the greatest public health crisis in America in a century, here comes the president’s own doctor, running in a district that’s been hard-hit by the pandemic. How much does Trump’s brand mean here?
Jackson’s path to this campaign is highly unorthodox. Born in Levelland, thirty miles west of Lubbock, Jackson served in the Navy some 24 years, more than half of that in the White House medical office. But he became famous only in 2018, after he gave his assessment of President Trump’s health at a raucous press conference following Trump’s first physical. “Some people have just great genes,” he said at the time. If Trump “had a healthier diet over the last twenty years, he might live to be two hundred years old.” About two months later, Trump nominated Jackson to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, one of the largest bureaucracies in the federal government.
His nomination fell apart in quick and spectacular fashion. Several dozen of Jackson’s former colleagues in the medical office told Senate Democrats that Jackson dispensed pills—uppers, downers, painkillers—like candy to White House staff. They alleged that he wrote prescriptions for himself and drank on the job. They variously called Jackson “the most unethical person I have ever worked with,” “despicable,” “dishonest,” and “incapable of not losing his temper.” They also said he was a “suck-up” and a “kiss up, kick down boss.” The Republican-controlled Senate gave Jackson a taste of his own medicine and kicked him down, and Jackson withdrew his nomination.
When I met him in Amarillo, Jackson was still fired up about the episode. He called the allegations “unsubstantiated, made-up lies that had no merit whatsoever. They were part of a concerted effort to tear me down as one of the president’s cabinet nominees. I’d never seen anything like this happen before it happened to me. Now it’s happened multiple times since then, including with Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh. And I tell people now that I got Kavanaughed before Kavanaugh did. I was the pregame, or the warm-up, and I didn’t really know it at the time.”
The failure of his cabinet nomination was a humiliation, but when Jackson retired, in December, he still had a lot to brag about. He had studied the noses and throats of three presidents. He was left with a generous pension—improved significantly by his promotion to rear admiral, secured during his time working for the Obama administration—a lifetime of stories from the front row of American history, and a ticket back to Texas, to which he and his wife had longed to return. Little more than a week elapsed before he made his first appearance on Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite morning television show—and the first of more than a dozen appearances on the network over the next six months.
He got a surprisingly cool reception. Host Steve Doocy told his audience that Jackson had been the subject of “serious but uncorroborated allegations” regarding his time in the White House. He played a montage of clips from Jackson’s detractors. Senator Sherrod Brown: “He was so inebriated one night, he went out and wrecked a government car.” Senator Jon Tester: “In the White House they called him the ‘candy man.’ ”
That was all “a bunch of baseless accusations that were designed to tear me down,” Jackson told Doocy. Jackson seemed a little uncomfortable: he swallowed hard, looked from side to side, turned in his chair. “If you support this president and he supports you and you’re out to help him with his agenda, you’re going to have a target on your back.” Doocy seemed unmoved. One could imagine the president, in his bathrobe, flipping over to hate-watch Morning Joe.
But Jackson’s fealty to his former boss wasn’t fleeting. From the beginning of his campaign, he ran as Trump’s man in the Panhandle. It was awkward, then, that Trump didn’t initially reciprocate. Jackson was the butt of a teasing profile in the New York Times that characterized his campaign as a seat-of-the-pants operation. His campaign manager was a “horse doctor,” and his wife drove him to events where he sometimes found few voters to charm. But eventually, support from Trump’s allies, though not yet the president himself, trickled in.
The Thirteenth Congressional District is the most Republican district in the nation, according to the Cook Political Report. In the past two elections, the district performed an average of 33 points more Republican than the country as a whole.
When the “candy man” beat thirteen candidates to win a spot in the runoff, observers started laughing a little less. The president had seemingly abandoned him, but the mere idea that he was Trump’s candidate had apparently been enough.
Jackson has one more formidable opponent, though: Winegarner. (In the Thirteenth Congressional District, where Trump bested Hillary Clinton 80 percent to 17 percent, the general election is a formality—the Democrat stands little chance.) Winegarner, bearded and bespectacled, was raised in Spearman, near the very top of the Panhandle, and has long lived in Canyon, south of Amarillo. In many ways, he’s the opposite of Jackson. Winegarner has a solid, traditional upbringing in Republican politics, serving as a staffer to former senator Phil Gramm and, later, Senator John Cornyn. For the past fourteen years, he’s worked for a trade group important to the local economy, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He’s never been on Fox News: “I guess I’m not on their call list.”
Winegarner says he was reluctant to run at first but was convinced by a sermon series given by his pastor at Hillside Christian Church that centered on the importance of using one’s gifts to help others. “That was really moving,” he said. “I have been given a lot of opportunities growing up here.” Winegarner says he wants to be “an advocate for where we live.” He rarely misses a chance to bring up the fact that Jackson didn’t live in the district until last year. “I’m a local. I have been part of this community for a number of years—all my life, really.” (Winegarner’s staff is less gentle—a member of his campaign repeatedly pointed me to the accusations in the Senate Democrats’ report and called Jackson a “chameleon” who “says what he needs to say to get by.”)
When COVID-19 hit, Winegarner turned his campaign into an aid program for suffering folks in the Panhandle. His website serves as a hub to connect those in need with those willing to give. Winegarner says his campaign also helped set up a pop-up food pantry that distributed thousands of pounds of food, and he personally delivered masks to an Amarillo testing site and gowns to the hospital in Dumas.
The crisis, Winegarner says, has impressed upon him the urgency of some of the district’s needs—among them the chronically slow speeds of America’s rural internet network, which is a drain on economic growth. “We live in rural Randall County, and even though we’ve got a pretty decent internet connection,” Winegarner said, “when you’ve got two Zoom calls going and two students doing their homework on Google Classroom, bandwidth goes down significantly.”
Although Jackson has been endorsed by Trump and is staking his campaign on it, Winegarner is backed by a variety of respected local Republican officials, among them Mac Thornberry and state senator Charles Perry. Winegarner takes great pains to stress that he, too, supports Trump, and his social media accounts frequently praise the president. “I’m conservative, a Republican, pro-life, pro–Second Amendment, pro-military, and I think we’ve got to finish building the wall,” he said. “I support the president, my district supports the president, but this election isn’t about President Trump. It’s about who is the best candidate for the district.”
Winegarner is arguably still the favorite to win. But the pandemic has scrambled the race. For one, it caused Governor Greg Abbott to postpone the runoff from May 26 until July 14; more time is arguably an advantage for the underdog. Jackson’s medical credentials also suddenly carry more cachet. And the abrupt halt to in-person campaigning has forced candidates across Texas to rely more on the media to get the word out. Despite his early stumbles on Fox & Friends, Jackson has proved to be a confident and in-demand guest of Fox, making frequent appearances to discuss, among other things, the potential of Remdesivir as a treatment for COVID-19 and Trump’s decision to take hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug that the president has repeatedly promoted. (“He’s leading from the front,” Jackson said. “The president is the most transparent president in history.”)
In the end, though, Jackson’s pitch to voters is material: my relationship with the president will bring us money. In a way it’s charmingly old-fashioned. Lyndon B. Johnson won his first congressional race, in 1937, by stressing his undying loyalty to FDR and used that relationship to bring money back to Texas. Of course, a good relationship with Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, would arguably be much more beneficial to Amarillo than a friendship with a president who has little remaining influence in Congress, setting aside that Trump might lose his bid for reelection. Nonetheless, it’s a compelling case for some in Amarillo, like former mayor Hodge, who founded a local pharmaceutical services company.
“With Ronny we got a lot of contacts in Washington. A lot of things start there and happen there,” Hodge said. “Josh [Winegarner] is a great guy. I just think that for Amarillo, at this point in time, Ronny can help us get more done in D.C.”
As the campaign has gone on, Jackson has gotten a few more establishment backers—in late May, he was endorsed by the influential Club for Growth PAC—while trying to make Winegarner’s supporters a liability for his opponent. Jackson’s top target is Will Hurd, the retiring moderate Republican from a Texas border district who bucked the president on the border wall and instead suggested a tech-driven “smart” wall. “I can guarantee you that people in the Thirteenth Congressional District have nothing in common with Will Hurd. He’s not even a Republican for most practical purposes,” Jackson told me. “He’s for open borders. He’s run around with Beto at length and made that something that he’s proud of.”
In May, after Trump called for members of the Obama administration to be arrested for treason—part of a baseless conspiracy theory known as Obamagate—Jackson made waves when he agreed that some of his former colleagues should be “brought to justice.”
Such invective surprised former members of the Obama White House who considered Jackson a friend. “It’s nothing personal. I did have friends” in the Obama administration, he said. But “there are still folks in those departments in the executive offices of the presidency that are working behind the scenes to undermine the agenda of our president. . . . People who abused their authority need to be held accountable. And if that means some of them end up going to jail, then that’s what needs to happen.”
In the White House, he said, he was an officer in uniform, bound to a code. Here in the Thirteenth Congressional District, he is free at last to be his authentic self. “I don’t have to change anything about who I am or what I believe to fit in,” he said, flashing his toothy white grin.
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “High Plains Grifter.” Subscribe today.